A mall waits - for customers and renewal

Victoria Malvey (right), co-owner of Victorian Savories Bakery and bakery manager Sarah Sickler (left) at the bakery in the Burlington Center on November 5, 2013. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )

Inside the Burlington Center, '80s hits by groups such as Tears for Fears reverberate from speakers in the forlorn corridors, a reminder of better days.

In 1982, when the center opened on what was once Burlington Township farmland along Route 541, department stores and enclosed regional malls reigned over the retail landscape.

What a difference a few decades have made.

In 2010, Macy's vacated its enormous Burlington store - originally, Strawbridge's - and in 2012 the mall itself was sold at auction.

The center is "open, but not that good," says Andrew Cross, 20, a Burlington City resident who patronizes Game Stop "once or twice a month" but otherwise spends little time at the mall.

No wonder: The Macy's building is still empty, overall mall occupancy is somewhere around 50 percent, and the dramatic renovations described by the new owner, Moonbeam Capital Investments, have yet to begin.

"I'm disappointed in the pace . . . and I'm concerned about the future of our own business," says Jerry Hamm, owner of Fraternal Regalia, a specialty retailer of customized clothing for sports teams and fraternal organizations.

"I'm not seeing enough happening," Hamm adds. "There was supposed to be a restaurant coming this past summer."

Laurie Ballard, the center's general manager, tells me she can't comment. About anything.

She refers me to Moonbeam, which owns eight other similarly distressed shopping malls nationwide. "We have received an overwhelming amount of interest" from potential tenants, senior vice president Shawl L. Pryor says.

So much so, he adds, that "conceptual" plans for "repositioning" the center have had to be revised.

"We have signed a number of letters of intent with national retailers who have committed to being part of . . . the Burlington Center," Pryor says from Moonbeam's corporate offices in Georgia.

He declines to say how much the company paid for the property, or what the proposed renovations could cost.

But he does insist that Moonbeam "has no intentions of selling the Burlington Center."

Moonbeam's initial concept called for demolishing the Macy's wing of the mall and replacing it with a freestanding strip of "big box" stores and other retailers.

The Sears and J.C. Penney wings would remain - although the eventual fate of these struggling national department-store chains themselves is anyone's guess.

More than the background music makes Burlington Center seem retro - and not in a good way. The bi-level mall hasn't been updated, as has the Deptford Mall. Nor has it undergone a massive makeover like the ones ongoing at the Cherry Hill and Moorestown Malls.

"We are all eager for something to happen," Burlington Township Mayor Brian Carlin says. "It's a great location. We need a retail center between [those in] Mount Laurel and Hamilton Township. And we want to keep the dollars here."

I visit the mall Tuesday morning. It's tidy, but melancholy. Where is everybody?

All but four food court vendors are shuttered, as are numerous storefronts on both levels. So much commerce and so many jobs, gone.

Nevertheless, "I'm optimistic," says Victoria Malvey, the owner of Victorian Savories Bakery.

"We've met with the new owners, and they have a lot of plans . . . to bring it back and have it be basically boutique-type stores," she says. "We fit in very well with their vision.

"There's more here than people think," Malvey adds. "They should take a chance and rediscover the Burlington Center."

I for one, was unaware of the Burlington Center Mall Ministry, which has operated an outreach center on the ground level for 15 years.

"I am hopeful, very much hopeful" about the mall, says ministry executive director Carol Pitts.

She likes to think of the white bird logo over the mall's main entrance as a dove.

"I pray for the owners, and for the right vendors to come in here," says Pitts. "I'm hoping the mall turns itself around."


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