In the heart of Merchantville, looking back may be easier than looking ahead.
The past is everywhere: in the eclectic collection of vintage storefronts on Centre Street, the exuberant mansions along Maple Avenue, and the more humble homes near the railroad tracks.
But what comes next is on the minds of many in this compact Camden County borough of 3,800: A process that could culminate in a merger with neighboring Cherry Hill (population 70,000) is officially under way.
"I like Merchantville the way it is," Dawn Schmidt said, as the Merchantville & Cherry Hill Consolidation Commission held its inaugural meeting Tuesday at the borough's community center.
The century-old, Tudor-style structure at the foot of Greenleigh Court is a legacy of the borough's heyday as an upper-crust suburb of Camden and Philadelphia.
Schmidt, the live-in caretaker, worries that her job will vanish if a merger occurs. She also wonders whether quintessentially suburban Cherry Hill will "keep the historical values" of Merchantville, whose walkable downtown is the antithesis of the commercial sprawl along Routes 70 and 38.
Chaired by Cherry Hill's Roger Dennis and vice-chaired by Merchantville's Richard James, the 10-member commission is hiring a consultant to figure out whether a merger makes fiscal and operational sense.
At least three commissioners from each town must vote yes by next August to place the question on next November's ballot in both communities.
At this point, there's as much skepticism about consolidation as momentum behind it, particularly in Merchantville.
Consider the borough website, where consolidation news appears under a graphic that splices the two towns' logos in a way that seems to suggest mash-up, rather than merger.
The site describes the commission as led by Cherry Hill officials and borough citizens "acting outside of Merchantville's elected government."
And while the "Merchantville Study for Consolidation" page on Facebook is an online headquarters for merger fans, a separate citizens' forum on Blogspot includes posts like one that predicts/hopes consolidation will "die a slow death."
"I really would hate to see Merchantville lose its identity," says Mike Rhea, 52, a meat cutter who grew up in the borough and now lives in . . . Cherry Hill.
He's having lunch with his son - a Paul VI freshman named Connor - at the Merchantville Diner. This cozy Centre Street eatery makes Cherry Hill's diners look rather like casinos.
"Merchantville is a nice, quaint little town," Rhea says, adding that his 82-year-old mother still lives there.
Some borough residents are concerned about what they see as a post-merger loss of Merchantville's character. Others worry more about less attentive municipal services, such as police protection.
Outside Aunt Charlotte's, the venerable candymaker (founded: 1920) that puts Merchantville on the map, Wallace Hussong says he sees "no real advantage" to a merger.
A retired teacher who's lived in the borough for 60 years, Hussong notes that some pro-merger sentiment springs from a decades-old concern about schools.
Merchantville is a sending district for the decidedly urban Pennsauken High, and the borough has tried in vain to switch to another district, including Haddonfield.
Mike McLoone, a retired accountant who has lived for three decades in a glorious Victorian house downtown, believes the high school issue must be resolved.
"People at the higher end of the income spectrum choose not to live here anymore, because of the high school," he says.
The borough's small-town charms will inevitably erode if it tries to remain a stand-alone community, McLoone adds, because it lacks the wherewithal to increase its tax base.
These financial constraints are far more of a threat to Merchantville's quality of life than merging with Cherry Hill, he says.
Back at Aunt Charlotte's, Theressa Irvin-Turner says a consolidation is long overdue.
Perhaps that's because the mother of three moved to Merchantville from . . . Cherry Hill.
"I love the little town," Irvin-Turner, 53, says. "I love the idea of merging, too."
In Merchantville, residents are divided on a merger with Cherry Hill. For video, go to www.philly.com/merchantville
Contact columnist Kevin Riordan
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