In blue-collar South Jersey town, Trump is a tenant

Beyond a majestic set of gates on West Branch Avenue in Pine Hill, the road to the Trump National Golf Club Philadelphia rises to a manicured peak.

The private club atop Camden County's highest point - Trump National's website calls it South Jersey's highest - is opulent, the view of the Center City skyline spectacular.

But the blue-collar borough below - which owns the 365 acres where the beautiful course was built as a property-tax-exempt redevelopment project in the late 1990s - is barely visible from up there.

And in the six years since Trump National purchased the project's assets for $3.7 million and assumed the prior tenant's lease spin-off, economic development in Pine Hill isn't evident, either.

"I can't see that [Trump National] has done anything positive, or negative. It's sort of a neutral," says my old friend Rick Woelpper, 61, a borough resident for 34 years.

When Trump National replaced what had been the semipublic Pine Hill Golf Club late in 2009, "I thought it might improve this area and bring more people in," Woelpper, a retired IT professional, says.

The upscale club "isn't something that people here think about much," he adds.

Eric Quinn, the club's genial general manager, says Trump National and the borough have a strong partnership. The course has created 200 jobs, many of them seasonal, nearly half of them held by local residents, and it uses local vendors and services. The club pays the borough $250,000 in rent annually.

Nevertheless, some Pine Hill officials seem reluctant to discuss the famous brand - and, by extension, the Republican presidential candidate - associated with their town.

Borough hall referred all questions to Mayor Christopher Green, who did not respond to voice mail and email requests for an interview.

The only reference to the golf course on the cheery municipal website - it dubs Pine Hill "Home for a Lifetime" - omits its name.

And people I talk to at bus stops, in parking lots, and at businesses around town also seem ambivalent.

"Sometimes people stop and ask where [the club] is," says Main Street Deli owner Neela Patel.

Telisha Rhem, 33, owner of Miss SweeTea's bakery, says someone heading for a function at Trump National once stopped in to buy a cake.

"I have a friend who used to work at the restaurant there, and she always got great tips," says Danielle Mitchell, 32, a call center employee who lives on Branch Avenue.

A diverse borough of 10,500, Pine Hill offers a distinctive landscape of pretty hills and woodsy neighborhoods. It has long shared a border with the world-renowned Pine Valley golf course.

But Pine Hill also is dotted with empty homes and shuttered stores. The Pine Hill Diner on Blackwood-Clementon Road closed and went up for sale some months ago.

No discouraging words are heard, however, during my visit to Heart of Gold Jewelers, a busy store at Erial Road and East Ninth Avenue in the heart of town.

Trump National "has been excellent for Pine Hill," declares Sam Rizzo, who runs the store with his wife, Stacey.

"I could go on for a week about it. There's been nothing negative."

Says Stacey, "Trump is everywhere, he could go anywhere, but [his company] came to Pine Hill."

Up at the club, Quinn provides a tour of the renovated 43,000-square-foot clubhouse and the 22,000-square-foot heated saltwater pool complex built since "Mr. Trump" arrived.

"We've spent $11 million," he says. "This club has been elevated to an elegant world-class facility."

There's no hotel on the premises - "yet," Quinn adds.

Mr. Trump, he adds, wants to build one.

kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.philly.com/blinq