CAPE MAY - After six decades in business, Kim Dellas' family has seen a lot of projects come and go along a three-block stretch of this town's main street, which has been known as the Washington Street Mall for 35 years.
But the $4.5 million makeover now under way may be the most important project yet for this beach town, which is fighting to keep its share of the Shore's tourism business.
"There is so much competition from other resorts and places these days that we really needed a face-lift here; we needed something to offer visitors and tourists to keep them coming back to Cape May," Dellas said.
Jeannine Brock, a 73-year-old lifelong resident of Cape May, agreed.
"You may think this is a successful tourist destination, and it is, but it needs an infusion of something new all the time to keep bringing people in and keep them coming back," said Brock, who operated a motel before retiring 15 years ago. "You can't rest on your laurels. Especially in this economy."
The Washington Street Mall was a cutting edge, must-see kind of place after town fathers got the idea in the early 1970s to close three blocks of the main street to vehicular traffic and create a pedestrian mall.
New lights, pebbled concrete sidewalks, and ornamental cherry and silver maple trees were installed, and merchants fixed up their storefront facades to create a Victorian village setting.
But 35 years later, what once was a destination for travelers was just another group of stores with overgrown landscaping, outdated and buckling sidewalks, and ugly streetlights.
"The Washington Street Mall really was one of the most successful pedestrian malls in the country," said City Manager Luciano V. Corea Jr. "Everybody wanted to copy our success."
In New Jersey alone, choruses of proponents for revamping flagging downtowns from Bridgeton to Toms River could be heard suggesting similar bold moves.
Wildwood closed eight blocks of its downtown to vehicles in the late 1980s and created an area called Holly Beach Station. Ten years later, it was reopened to traffic.
In Cape May, rents for storefronts remained among the most expensive in the region - as much as five figures a month - as visitors flocked to the street mall and surrounding lanes laden with boutiques and restaurants.
But after store owners in Cape May began complaining that their oft-copied jewel had become a bit tarnished, officials began debating just how a makeover could be accomplished.
After two minor lawsuits and a defeated bond ordinance, the town began work three weeks ago on the project, which will be paid for by capital bonds.
The town is also considering creating a business improvement district that could assess store owners an additional tax.
"It's really a shame we couldn't have started this sooner," said Corea. "It is something that has been so obviously needed for so long."
Crews began by removing dozens of overgrown trees, which will be replaced with 20-foot-tall saplings of species more appropriate to the area, including red maples, ginkos and honey locusts, Corea said.
Additional landscaping also includes the planting of species that can tolerate the salty sea air and also the sometimes dry conditions of Cape May, including hydrangeas, rose of Sharon, and flowering cherry varieties.
Among the first steps - a noisy and dusty step - was to remove the concrete sidewalks, which will be replaced with red brick and tumbled pavers that will be installed in a herringbone pattern, according to a plan created by the Wildwood engineering firm of Remington, Vernick & Walker.
The project also includes new lighting that will feature gas-simulated, but electric, Victorian-style fixtures.
Officials expect the makeover to be completed by May, Corea said.
"It may look a little rough right now, but it's going to be beautiful when it's done, and it's going to add a lot of appeal to this town," said store owner Dellas, 44, whose family has owned the corner at Washington and Decatur Streets since 1947, when her grandfather, Pete Dellas, and her father, Norman Dellas, opened a five-and-dime.
The family recently made over the store, opening a new lunch counter and soda fountain.
"We renovated and opened this lunch counter because we wanted to bring something back to this downtown, both for the people who live here and for those who vacation here," said Dellas. "I think that's what this mall project will do."
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.