When widower Robert Ashe was looking to make a fresh start in South Jersey, he found a place in his hometown at his childhood stomping grounds: the old Pennsauken Mart site.
Ashe, 68, became the first tenant on Nov. 1 at Haddon Point, a luxury apartment complex under construction on the long-vacant site. Under a redevelopment plan years in the making, buildings are filling up the space that was once a popular haunt for bargain-hunters. The Mart shut down in 2003 and was demolished in 2007.
"I watched them level this place," Ashe said Tuesday, standing in front of the clubhouse that is the centerpiece of the apartment project. "I came and looked at it, and I loved it."
A handful of tenants have moved into the first building constructed on the site, said Tom Juliano, president of Delco Development of Willingboro. The plan calls for 240 units in 11 buildings and will take several years to complete, he said.
"We worked really hard," Juliano said. "We're excited."
>>READ MORE: New life for old Pennsauken Mart
Workers were scrambling Tuesday to ready the property for a grand opening Wednesday afternoon, arranging chairs next to a fire pit outside and putting on the finishing touches in the clubhouse. Crews in hard hats were working on a nearby building under construction.
The 35-acre site was unused for years, covered with weeds, until the Burlington County developer acquired the property from Camden County for $6.2 million in 2016. Construction on the apartments began in June 2017 and plans initially called for possibly adding commercial ventures later, but those plans have been scrapped, mainly because of the retail market that already exists along Route 130, Juliano said.
Juliano said his firm, which specializes in distressed properties, recently reached a deal with Ryan Homes to build 189 townhouses on the property. Construction is expected to begin in 2019 and take several years. Both firms are receiving tax incentives, he said.
For years, there were grand plans to build condos and townhouses, which replaced a plan for a minor-league hockey rink and conference center. Those plans were dropped, mainly due to a sluggish economy at the time, officials said.
The apartment redevelopment project, expected to cost from $35 million to $40 million, was a major disappointment to former Pennsauken Mart merchants and their customers, who had long hoped that it somehow would be revived. The shopping center largely fell victim to competition from malls and other marketplaces.
"I go by that place every day. I miss the old Mart," said Kerry Yobb, former president of the Pennsauken Mart Merchants Association and owner of the Gold Emporium and Pretzel King at the Mart. "It was one of a kind."
Located at Routes 130 and 73, the Pennsauken Mart attracted customers from the entire Philadelphia region. Its 120 stores offered a variety of things — liquor, clothing, food, jewelry repair, shoe shines, tailoring, pets, and an arcade.
While waiting to find a buyer, the county paid Pennsauken $2.5 million for lost tax revenue. The county and Delco will split annual payments of $253,000 in lieu of taxes until the site is fully developed.
Juliano said he understands the nostalgia of former Mart customers.
Pennsauken Mayor Jack Killion said the redevelopment breathes new life into an old eyesore in the community of 35,000 residents. Some skeptics have wondered whether the complex will attract enough tenants or whether it should have been redeveloped solely as a commercial venture.
"For well over a decade, there have been a lot of proposals for this site that never got off the ground, much to the frustration of our administration and our residents," Killion said in a statement. "We look forward to seeing this development grow into a new staple of our community."
Haddon Point hopes to attract young professionals and empty nesters lured by its location about 20 minutes from Center City. The one- and two-bedroom apartments rent for $1,520 to $1,905 monthly, plus utilities. The gated complex includes a recreation center, a pool, barbecue grills, and a jogging path.
Ashe, a Vietnam veteran, said he moved to the new complex from Deptford, five months after his wife, Catherine, 77, died. The memories of his companion of 30 years in the place they shared were haunting, he said. While growing up in Pennsauken, Ashe said he played in the arcade at the Mart, and this was the right time to move back.
"This is a beautiful spot," Ashe said.