Perhaps the biggest announcement to come out of the borough commissioners meeting Monday night was the first reading of local ordinance 1529: “Authorizing the Acquisition of Real Property Located at 741 Haddon Ave.”—better known as National Food Market.
The corner store, which is best known in town for its infrequent hours of operation and as a repository for lottery tickets, also has had “a whole host of health code violations,” said Collingswood Mayor James Maley at the meeting.
In short, he said, the borough just isn’t getting its money’s worth out of the property.
“It’s no good for the rest of the block or the rest of the neighborhood. It’s closed most of the time; when it is open, it’s selling lottery tickets,” Maley said.
“We really think it’s a building that can have a great use as some food-related business,” he said. “That’s all it’s made for.”
With the first reading of the ordinance, Collingswood is taking steps toward acquiring the property through its powers of eminent domain. Maley said that although the borough hasn’t filed any legal action in court, it has had the property appraised and has extended an offer to its current owner for an amount he would not disclose.
According to borough records, the property was last assessed in the fall of 2007, at a total market value at $477,000 ($160,000 land value plus $317,000 improvement value). Property taxes for 2011-12 were $14,209.83.
The owner of record on the property is named Shinder Pal, and the latest listed date of sale is Feb. 4, 2000.
“We really hope it turns out to be no more than we facilitate a sale [to new owners],” Maley said, adding that prospective buyers were arranging times to tour and inspect the site.
'We've talked and tried to explain'
Collingswood Zoning Code and Enforcement Officer Mary Ellen Ries told Patch that the relationship between the Pals and the borough has been marked by a handful of issues over the years.
In the past, Ries said, she has referred to the Camden County Health Department “complaints for outdated food [and] general internal cleanliness.”
Ries also said that requests of the owners to maintain the property have often resulted in the issuance of letters: to repave the parking lot, repair a torn awning and to not use the lot to store out-of-service livery vehicles.
(Pal had, at one point, housed out-of-service taxis in the rear parking lot “some years ago,” she recalled.)
In addition to upkeep issues, National Food Market also has been cited under local vacancy ordinance for failing to stay open at least six hours a day, four days a week, 49 weeks a year—the minimum required by borough statute for an actively operating commercial business.
“Although we’ve talked and tried to explain” to owners that they need to keep the store open more often, Reis said, “it hasn’t worked.”
As if to underscore her point, the market was closed early Wednesday afternoon, when Patch stopped by speak with its owners.
Don't hold out hope for Trader Joe's
Like others in attendance at Monday’s commissioner’s meeting, Reis agreed that a new market or food-related business in town at that location would especially benefit seniors in the adjacent Collingswood Arms apartment buildings.
Although tenants of the building are supported by a shuttle service to help them get around to do their shopping, she pointed out that it would be “very beneficial” for seniors “to have a viable place nearby” in the event of inclement weather.
At the meeting Monday, some residents asked why the market has lingered for so long in its current condition.
“It’s obvious now that it’s not being used up to its potential,” said resident Bob Romano. “What is [the owner’s] position as to why he doesn’t clean it up and optimize the place?”
Maley responded that communications with the current property owner have been conducted mostly through attorneys.
“I haven’t spoken with him; there’s a little bit of a language barrier,” he said.
The mayor also wouldn’t offer up any information on which business proposals the borough has fielded for the location, and outright nixed the idea that it could become a Trader Joe’s.
Maley said Collingswood had courted the popular grocery chain for a development parcel some years back, but that it preferred to expand into the southern United States, where it can also retail alcohol.
All Maley would say is, “We think everyone will be very, very happy if it works.”
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