Gone is the shabby business strip that stood by the entrance to Fort Dix in Burlington County. It was such an eyesore that U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton (R., N.J.) once avoided it when giving a tour to a four-star Air Force general.
In its place are open lots and adjacent land ready for Wrightstown's new "downtown center": a $60 million project with a 120-room hotel and conference center, a restaurant, bank, retailers and, possibly, medical offices.
The long-awaited transformation will be the work of Saylors Pond Redevelopment L.L.C., Wrightstown Mayor Tom Harper announced yesterday.
The firm, the Borough Council's unanimous choice, is an affiliate of United Communities L.L.C., of Marlton, run by Richard Haydinger. It is constructing or rehabbing more than 2,000 houses at Fort Dix and nearby McGuire Air Force Base.
"I've been a businessman in town for 33 years. I remember Wrightstown in its heyday, and I've seen it drop back to nothing," said Harper, who owns a gas station across from the site. "Now I'm seeing it come back.
"We will have a live town again, not a dying one," he said.
The developer's vision for a strip of shops and hotel is just what is needed to attract visitors to the borough of 800 residents, Harper said.
Wrightstown was cut off from a lot of through traffic when post-9/11 security measures forced gate closings at Fort Dix.
The planned development has what Harper calls an old-fashioned, homey charm. "People will have a reason to come here, and they will patronize other businesses along the way," he said.
The construction will occupy a small portion of what eventually will be more than 40 acres of new development, Harper said. He anticipates up to 300,000 more square feet of retail space or housing on the land.
"We're hoping to shift the center of town" toward the entrance to Fort Dix, Harper said.
The total makeover could cost $300 million, officials said. The developer will finance the project, and the town will apply for state and federal aid to build the infrastructure, the mayor said.
In better times, Wrightstown's business strip included bars, a dry cleaner, a cab stand, an insurance office, record and liquor stores, and barber, pawn and beauty shops.
The 1.2-square-mile town hosted thousands of 18-year-old draftees or recruits from World War I to the Persian Gulf War. But many of its shops closed in the 1980s and 1990s after the fort lost its basic-training role and repeatedly faced the threat of closure.
Fort Dix is now part of a 60-square-mile installation dubbed Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The facility, which straddles Burlington and Ocean Counties, is host to Air Force, Army and Navy units, as well as elements of the Marines and Coast Guard.
The combined military and civilian population of Dix and McGuire, the bases closest to the strip, is more than 34,000.
The area's built-in market has made the site attractive to developers and prospective businesses and homeowners - and recently lowered interest rates make financing favorable.
The timing for the project is right, said Saxton, who led the effort to save Dix, McGuire and Lakehurst from Defense Department budget cuts, then persuaded the Pentagon in 2004 to turn over more than 40 acres to the borough and school district.
"Knocking down the old storefronts was a pleasure, but that was Wrightstown's past," said Saxton, who used a bulldozer to raze the first of 15 storefronts on Fort Dix Street. "Today, we're talking about Wrightstown's future."