Camden took the first step toward shedding one of its many unwelcome labels - food desert - by announcing plans Tuesday for a 75,000-square-foot ShopRite store.
The supermarket, which Mayor Dana L. Redd described as an oasis, will anchor a planned 150,000-square-foot retail shopping center at the Admiral Wilson Boulevard and 17th Street, city officials and developers said.
The ShopRite would be the city's first new full-service supermarket in 30 years and only the second in the city of 77,000 people. There is a Pathmark store in the Fairview section.
The planned Admiral Wilson Plaza will serve as a much-needed tax-revenue generator and as an employer in a city that struggles with joblessness and a reputation for violent crime.
About 400 construction jobs are expected to be created once the project breaks ground, officials said.
The developer, Goldenberg Group of Blue Bell, is just starting the permitting and land acquisition process with the city and the Delaware River Port Authority, which owns a portion of the 20 acres the project needs.
DRPA spokesman Tim Ireland said that no one had talked to the authority yet about purchasing its land but that it would be willing to negotiate.
Completion of Admiral Wilson Plaza is expected in 2015, developer Ken Goldenberg said.
"This is a project I believe will jump-start Camden's commercial renaissance," Redd told a news conference.
Goldenberg and the Ravitz family, which owns five ShopRites in Burlington and Camden Counties, said they had been trying to set up shop in Camden for years.
About a year ago, while representatives of the two groups were looking at a potential development site outside Camden, the conversation started flowing toward Camden - that the city was ripe for redevelopment, Goldenberg said.
"It's where the two of us meet," Goldenberg said, referring to his projects, mostly in Pennsylvania projects - he is among those vying for Philadelphia's second casino license - and the Ravitzes' South Jersey stores.
The Admiral Wilson Plaza investors want to join redevelopment already under way in Camden, they said, citing Cooper University Hospital's campus expansion.
The expansion includes a new cancer center and the new Cooper Medical School of Rowan University as well as a growing University District along Cooper Street.
"It's an opportunity to be part of a great transformative process," Goldenberg said.
"We've been looking at Camden for a decade," said Shawn Ravitz, vice president of Supermarkets of Cherry Hill Inc., which owns the ShopRite stores in Camden and Burlington Counties.
The land along the Admiral Wilson Boulevard, the artery leading to Philadelphia and the Ben Franklin Bridge, has been mostly vacant for years, with overgrown lots and a few gas stations and warehouses.
The acute shortage of supermarkets has landed much of Camden on the list of the country's worst food deserts.
The term is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a low-income urban area where at least a third of the residents live more than a mile from a supermarket that has at least $2 million in annual sales.
The city has a few mid-size grocery stores. A 16,000-square-foot Fine Fare Supermarket opened last fall at Federal and 21st Streets, just up the road from a Cousins store.
But the ShopRite promises to offer a wider variety of fresh produce, a bakery, a deli, a floral department, and a pharmacy.
Unclear is whether Camden will get yet another full-service supermarket, a Fresh Grocer.
The Philadelphia-based Fresh Grocer signed a letter of intent in September to anchor the long-planned Haddon Avenue Transit Village, which calls for 40,000 square feet of office space, about 400 housing units, a 50,000-square-foot supermarket, and a 700-space garage.
But despite the state's approval of $50 million in tax credits for the mixed-use project, the grocery store has yet to sign a lease for the planned site at the White Horse Pike intersection near Collingswood.
It was not known Tuesday if Fresh Grocer would sign a lease given ShopRite's plan.
Randy Cherkas, president of Grapevine Development, which is developing the village, said he planned to meet with Fresh Grocer officials on Friday.
Fresh Grocer spokeswoman Carly Spross said, "We just heard about the news, so we will have to do our due diligence to find out what the impact would or wouldn't be."
Admiral Wilson Plaza will be financed through private and public funds, said Jeremy Fogel, principal at Goldenberg Group.
For its proposed Camden project, Goldenberg Group is seeking a variety of state grants and financing, including from the Economic Redevelopment and Growth program of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
An incremental-tax plan might also be negotiated, but Goldenberg said it was "too preliminary to articulate" the project's financial aspects. He said he did not know the current assessed value of the land eyed for the project.
The plaza and ShopRite would be easily accessible to most Camden residents once the Baird Boulevard and East State Street bridges reopen for traffic. Camden County officials expect both bridges to be open this summer.