For New Jersey shore, development mixed blessing Abundant land, Atlantic City casinos draw commerce to area


EGG HARBOR CITY, N.J. -- John and Esther Fricano needed 5 acres, a spot where their dreams could take root and grow. They selected a tract dotted with pines and oaks in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., not far from where U.S. 40 and U.S. 322 come together.

In 1954, they began building - a tiny schoolhouse, a man-size concrete goose, a bright-yellow hut where three bears lived - and Storybook Land became one of the few businesses on the narrow blacktop stretching between Atlantic City and the spot where, decades later, developers would build Hamilton Mall. They opened for business in April the next year.

"There was very little out here back then," Esther Fricano said recently on a slow afternoon. "Now, it takes you 10 minutes just to get on the highway."

Travelers who routinely make the trip past Storybook Land, between the Cardiff Circle and Hamilton Township, home of the regional mall, might accuse Esther Fricano of only a slight exaggeration.

In the 41 years since Storybook Land opened, the mainland area just west of the Garden State Parkway and U.S. 9 in Atlantic County and parts of Cape May and Ocean counties has boomed, changing from a dusty land where blueberry harvests highlighted seasonal change to a mini-metropolis dotted with strip malls and gas stations, car dealerships and real-estate offices.

It didn't happen all at once, but change came as surely as the hordes of vacationers who returned in growing numbers each year. Some stayed behind and joined the ranks of full-time

residents. That brought more shops, more homes, more everything.

They've relocated to the inland communities near the shore from across New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Some are retirees. Some moved to be closer to the shore. And many, many in the last decade have moved into the region to work in Atlantic City's gambling halls, its restaurants and hotels, and at the thousands of jobs that appeared to support the gambling and leisure economy.

It's been a mixed blessing for the shore. Vacationers easily can buy that extra bag of charcoal or box of cereal today on the way to their summer retreat. But the ease of shopping has cut deeply into the business of traditional shore retailers - putting some of them out of business.

Lots of land

"It's all just sort of snowballed," says one longtime merchant in the mainland town of Northfield, just east of the Garden State Parkway.

The growth, in large part, can be measured in asphalt and brick, in acres of parking lots and truckloads of consumer goods. Developers like the Jersey shore's mainland region for one simple reason: It has lots of land still available to accommodate shopping centers catering to people passing through and those planning to stay.

"There's just no place on [the islands] where you can find this kind of space," said Gordon Dahl, who oversees the South Jersey Economic Development District, a Vineland-based organization that serves Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties. "So you go to the mainland."

The findings come as no surprise to most developers or real estate specialists, who watched the trickle of business and visitors turn into a torrent that shows no sign of abating - especially now, with the renewed interest in gambling in Atlantic City.

Consider Ray Townsend. He's 44, the administrator of Atlantic County's Hamilton Township and part-owner of a restaurant that enjoys a thriving lunch and dinner trade. His family moved to the area when he was 4. Townsend remembers dusty sunsets and blueberry harvests, quiet country roads and cool creeks.

Now, he said recently, much of the land that once yielded corn and berries serves up bumper crops of cars idling at stop lights. Homes that sat in the middle of 25 acres are nudged on each side by townhouses and apartments.

"I'm somewhat prejudiced, but I think there's a quality of life that appeals to people in Hamilton Township," said Townsend. "There's a very positive image about Hamilton."

That image includes a skyline that has changed in the last two years to include the sprawling roofs of Wal-Mart and Toys R Us. Both are within hailing distance of Hamilton Mall, the first to locate in the township when it opened for business nine years ago.

Hamilton Township's location offered everything a high-volume retail business like Wal-Mart needs, said Betsy Reithemeyer, spokeswoman for the Bentonville, Ark.-based chain.

"It's right between Vineland and Atlantic City," said Reithemeyer. "That's an area with huge growth potential."

That growth illustrates a business maxim, said James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus.

First, segments of the shore's mainland region are just close enough to major population areas to attract lots of vacationers and residents.

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