By Jeff Wolfe
If you travel regularly on Route 322 in Woolwich Township, you’ve no doubt seen the signs in the fields hundreds, if not thousands of times over the years. The signs proclaim several retail stores are coming to the area between Kings Highway and Exit 2 for the New Jersey Turnpike.
The signs have been standing there for about seven years for Main Street at Woolwich, which would include grounds just across from Kingsway High School, and for Woolwich Commons, which includes ground near the turnpike.
And while no one can be blamed for thinking those signs are just part of the natural landscape, different kinds of signs are indicating that what many have been reading about for so long, may actually come true within the next two years.
The Wolfson Group, which is led by Steve Wolfson and is based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., is promoting on its website that the Woolwich Commons site will be anchored by a Super Wal-Mart store and that the venue will be operational by 2015. That means construction on the site, which will begin with sewer and water installation, will begin sometime in 2014.
“Steve Wolfson, he’s stuck around with us through the good times and bad times,” said Woolwich Mayor Sam Maccarone. “I remember seeing those signs go up for the first time. For forever we’ve heard about 322 and people think we are Chicken Little or crying wolf. He’s very eager to get this project started. We will be moving dirt in 2014, but exactly when I’m not sure. But I know he is very eager to get started.”
Some other businesses that are proposed for Woolwich Commons include a McDonalds, a Chick-Fil-A, a PNC Bank, and Applebee’s. Other types of venues included in the plot are home improvement, sporting goods, apparel and junior department stores.
The businesses are important because while Woolwich has added thousands of houses in the last 10 to 12 years, it hasn’t added a lot of businesses, meaning property tax rates have had to increase to help fund such things as emergency services and an expanding school system in the district. Woolwich’s population went from about 3,300 in 2001 to 10,200 in 2011. Maccarone estimates that it’s probably near 11,000 today.
“For years, I heard about how we didn’t have enough rooftops,” Maccarone said. “Now I believe we have enough rooftops. We are business friendly and we will sit down and talk with (developers) and see if their project can succeed in Woolwich Township.”
There are a couple of reasons this project has taken so long. One, with the recession happening in 2008, pretty much any expansion plans were put on hold by many developers. Also it took time for approvals on such things as sewer and water lines.
“What took so long for 322 was to get approval for a sewer service area,” Maccarone said. “In the 90’s, they were trying to get sewer service there and it never got approved. Every administration here has been trying to get this accomplished. In 2009, we finally got the approval. It took a lot of hard work from volunteers and from our employees to get where we are getting today. We owe a big thank you to our volunteers to get where we are today. The former mayors, the township committees, they have always been moving forward and looking for other ways to improve our lives.”
Aqua New Jersey is the franchise holder for water and sewer. They service sewer through an agreement with Logan MUA. According to Woolwich Township Administrator Jane DiBella, Wolfson has purchased enough sewer credits to service Phase 1 of this project.
The water that Aqua New Jersey supplies to the residents of Weatherby, currently the only residents with public water, will service the corridor through a re-route of the piping intended to come from High Hill Road, down Locke Avenue to the corridor.
One of the issues once the stores are in place, and that would be just for the Woolwich Commons project, will be how fast or slow traffic may move along that section of Route 322. The section of 322 between Kings Highway and the turnpike is already busy and the intersection of Route 322 and Kings Highway often backs up during the morning and afternoon rush hours at around 7 a.m. to 7:15 before school starts at Kingsway, then again around 3 p.m. when school is out.
“Hopefully with that light at 322 and Kings Highway, we are working with the department of transportation and county to get that interchange fixed,” Maccarone said. “The DOT is waiting for funding. We have reached out to our district representatives to work on that.”
Maccarone admitted to getting stuck on Kings Highway just south of 322 one morning while taking his daughter to school.
“It took us forever,” he said. “When the turning lanes are in, it will alleviate a lot of stress and anxiety of driving there.”
But even if that intersection is fixed within the next few years, there will be added stoplights for the retail development. The site plan for the Woolwich Commons development shows for two more stop lights to go between Kings Highway and the turnpike.
However, while traffic may not move fast, Maccarone says that good business will help move some local school systems in the right direction financially. According to Maccarone, the Swedesboro-Woolwich district could receive as much as $747,000 and Kingsway High School and Middle School could receive as much as $461,000.
“The one great thing about this project is it will utilize tax dollars to help schools,” Maccarone said. “They are severely under-funded right now. That’s a good way that this will help us.”
Another good way the project will help is to bring jobs to the area.
“The creation of jobs is something that we definitely need,” Maccarone said. “There will be 2,200 construction jobs and when this is all operational, 3,100 other jobs. We need that. This is a great thing to happen to the area.”
One thing that many residents, especially those who have lived in Woolwich and the surrounding areas for many years, don’t want to see is the disappearance of more open space. Maccarone says he understands where they are coming from, and that Woolwich will continue to keep open land preservation a priority with the transfer developer rights program.
“For the last several years, we have preserved 1,300 acres through farmland preservation,” said Maccarone, who has been mayor since 2011. “We have always been active with that. But along Route 322 is where to grow our township. It’s the only underdeveloped township along the turnpike. We have open space taxes and through the TDR (transfer development rights) we will be preserving farmland with private dollars instead of public dollars.”
Maccarone says his family still farms in Woolwich and that keeping that heritage is something that is important to him. “It’s always a goal to preserve our rural atmosphere,” he said. “I grew up on a farm and my parents still own a farm here. It’s something we are proud of.”
The way the TDR program works is that, for example, if a developer buys some land and can build 30 houses on it, that developer can buy 30 credits from an land owner who does not want to develop on land, and transfer those credits to the newly purchased property. That would allow the developer to build 60 houses on the newly bought land.
Maccarone said the program was scheduled to have a five-year review on Oct. 30 and that since he is involved with a farming family, he cannot be a part of that review.
Maccarone did admit he has received some mixed reviews when news got out that a Super Wal-Mart was coming to Woolwich. Maccarone said there is no timetable for the development of the Main Street at Woolwich and Woolwich Crossings, but that Wolfson holds the rights to develop on those plots until 2030.
“The only store we know of for sure is a Super Wal-Mart,” he said. “There have been some mixed reactions to it, but the developer has a tenant and we are happy for him to develop. It took three meetings to get it approved. I’ve seen a lot of residents and I’ve gotten reaction from both sides. Some are not too happy about it, but the majority has been positive.”
With a large majority of residents in Woolwich working in other places, such as the Wilmington, Del., or Philadelphia areas, Maccarone will be glad to see them spend more of their earnings where they live. According to the Wolfson website, there are 13,498 households within five miles of the Woolwich Commons projects, 25,040 households within seven miles and 121,903 within 10 miles.
“One of the benefits will be having closer retail,” Maccarone said. “Right now everybody says they have to go across the (Delaware Memorial) bridge or to Deptford areas. The best part of this is that they will be close by.”
Maccarone is also confident that Wolfson will be good to the community.
“We’ve seen developers come and go,” he said. “He’s been steadfast with us. He says he will be a good neighbor and I firmly believe that.”