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SMALL-TOWN RETAIL SUCCESS STORIES: In Collingswood, close proximity to big cities is big key

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Collingswood was named the Most Transformed Town in America in 2011.
Collingswood was named the Most Transformed Town in America in 2011. - ()

With its old-fashioned, small-town charm and pedestrian-friendly urban flavor, Collingswood is oddly reminiscent of early 20th century America.

Once upon a time, however, the largely blue-collar town suffered from its proximity to Camden and the growing trend of residents moving farther away from where they worked.

Now, that's all changed — and Collingswood is ready to capitalize on making it easier to live with a little less.

For instance, Collingswood is just finishing the last phase of its $45 million “LumberYard” multifamily project, a result of public and private financing from the New Jersey Department of Transportation's 2003 Smart Growth initiative aimed at encouraging residential development along commuter corridors.

Mayor Jim Maley — who has been mayor for 17 years and in elected office for 25 — said the transformation of the original town lumberyard into 70 condominiums and 100 apartments is the most housing that's been built in the town over the last 60 years.

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“We've been built out,” Maley said.

“But one of the things that South Jersey suffers from is a lack of rail transit — we're lucky enough to be one of the seven stops on the (PATCO) Speedline.

“People are living here because they're able to survive without a car or just one car.”

Jef Buehler agrees Collingswood's high-speed, elevated rail access adjacent to the wealthier community of Haddonfield has spurred its economic growth.

“Transit-oriented development has become, over the last 15 years, very much a public-policy focus, tactic and strategy to support downtown and community revitalization,” Buehler said.

Collingswood's close proximity to Philadelphia hasn't hurt it, either.

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“We can drive back from the Phillies game after watching the last out and be back home before the radio postgame starts,” Maley said.

And that goes both ways: While Collingswood has focused on making the town more attractive to its 14,000 residents through initiatives such as a duplex conversion program and public safety upgrades, Collingswood also benefits from frequent visitors from nearby areas such as Philadelphia and Camden.

Essentially, Collingswood has become the most easily accessible one-stop shop after implementing a bike-share program, adding Zipcar vehicle-sharing stations, constructing a community greenhouse and hosting a seasonal farmer's market.

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“We're also a dry town, so we worked very hard on the BYOB restaurant scene,” Maley said.

In the last years, 20 restaurants serving everything from Brazilian to French cuisine have opened — no doubt helping Collingswood earn its 2011 title as the Most Transformed Town in America by Forbes.

“The last 10 or 15 years towns (have been) talking about building town centers,” Maley said.

“You used to build the center first and housing developed around it. If you build a train station, development happens around it. That's what it's always been for us and we still do that.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

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