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With dozens of empty storefronts, will this South Jersey town’s main street be saved by the arts?

A small group of Runnemede, NJ residents hopes to spark revitalization of the Black Horse Pike with an arts-related campaign called Reimagine Runnemede.

Artist J. Kenneth Leap stands for a portrait next to a mural he painted outside his studio along the Black Horse Pike in Runnemede, N.J., on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.
Artist J. Kenneth Leap stands for a portrait next to a mural he painted outside his studio along the Black Horse Pike in Runnemede, N.J., on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

With his deep Runnemede roots and keen artist’s eye, J. Kenneth Leap thought he knew pretty much everything he needed to know about the Camden County community where he grew up, raised a family, and still resides.

But when the stained-glass designer took photographs last year while walking his dog along the Black Horse Pike, the busy state highway that is the borough’s unofficial main street, he was dismayed to see about 30 empty storefronts or vacant commercial properties. A slow-moving, but dramatic, decline was taking place in plain sight, and too few people seemed to notice, or care.

“I don’t think this is what Runnemede really wants the pike to be,” said Leap. “Twenty-thousand vehicles come through here daily and don’t stop. We have to give them a reason to.”

Fortunately, on that day in February 2018 Leap also noticed lots of possibilities. He ended up buying one of the pike’s empty buildings, transforming it into a studio and showroom. This stylish new space is also a venue for creative, civic-minded borough residents to share ideas; those ongoing monthly “community visioning” sessions have birthed a nonprofit called Reimagine Runnemede.

The central idea: Using the arts to attract businesses, local pedestrians, and visitors to the pike, especially the more walkable section between Clements Bridge Road and the New Jersey Turnpike. The borough recently declared this mile-long stretch of what’s also called Route 168 a redevelopment zone.

“We’re taking a stab at making this a cool town,” said Leap, 55, whose grandparents owned a grocery store on the pike just west of his studio. His late father, Bill, was a sign-painter who wrote a scholarly history of Runnemede, a tidy, working-class town of 8,400 immediately east of the New Jersey Turnpike.

“Runnemede has great people. The schools are good and there are lots of sports for the kids. But there’s a complete lack of public art,” said Leap. To begin filling the void, he and other Reimagine Runnemede volunteers recently completed a boldly hued mural on the west side of his building.

The borough’s debut public artwork will be unveiled Oct. 17. The mural was paid for with a grant from Ocean First Bank after Reimagine Runnemede became a finalist in a “creative placemaking” competition sponsored by the South Jersey Cultural Alliance. The nonprofit organization nurtures culture, history, and arts-related programs.

“Ken lit a canvas on fire [during a presentation] to illustrate that he wanted to ignite the revitalization of Runnemede through the arts," said alliance executive director Karen Pinzolo.

Although arts and culture “aren’t always the solution” to the challenges of older suburbs, murals, music, food festivals, and other activities “can get people engaged and get people thinking,” Pinzolo said. “Arts and culture are a small investment with big returns."

Unlike similar suburbs that arose from hamlets along the waterways, railroads, and highways of South Jersey, Runnemede — likely named for Runnymede, a famous meadow near London, England — never had a genuine downtown. “We’ve always been a bedroom community for people who work in Camden or Philadelphia,” said Mayor Nick Kappatos. “The pike is an asset, and we have to do a better job of improving it. The arts can be a great resource."

Once home to a city-size vaudeville house and movie theater, the pike still has any number of thriving local businesses, including a grocery store that specializes in Polish foods, a new brewpub, a popular pizzeria, and even a footwear repair shop. And the municipal building, post office, and borough library are fixtures there as well.

Arts educator Rachelle Omenson, who teaches at Runnemede’s Triton Regional High School and also calls the borough home, is jazzed by the pike’s possibilities.

“Right now, when you get off the Turnpike or I-295 and enter Runnemede, you don’t know when you start and when you finish,” she said. “We want you to stop and walk and have a place to land in town."

Reimagine Runnemede is not so much about transforming the town as enhancing it. “We’re trying to do this with art, but also with huge community input,” Omenson said, noting that Runnemede has an underutilized bike path. It also has a park, a modest waterfront along Timber Creek, and a rolling, even hilly terrain that’s unusual in South Jersey.

The borough’s Green Team, of which Omenson is a member, already is involved in adding bike racks benches along the pike. “There are things we can do to make it more human-friendly,” she said.

The simple fact that folks in town are talking about the future of the pike and are networking with other organizations is a plus, said Leap, who is happy to be a champion for a town where his family has lived for generations.

“I want to inspire other people to step up,” he said.

Given that the pike has been in decline for decades, rapid improvement is unlikely. As Patrick Brennan, a proud Triton grad and borough resident who is Leap’s studio assistant, said: “It takes time. You start with the small things.”

It takes effort, too. But members of the Reimagine Runnemede crew already have their sleeves rolled up.