Burlington Center Mall was launched in 1982 to enormous fanfare. Then-Gov. Thomas H. Kean and scores of dignitaries attended the grand opening of the center, built by The Rouse Co.
"It was a very big deal," said Walter J. Corters, the Burlington Township administrator. "There were thousands of people there."
The mall — and its million square feet of retail space — now sits moribund, abandoned by retailers and customers. Macy's and JCPenney pulled out years ago. Rebranded in 2015 as the Marketplace of Burlington, it had a planned renovation calling for 100 storefronts with restaurants and entertainment. It never happened. Sears is the last of its three department store anchors.
There was no heat in the complex on Monday as subfreezing temperatures chilled the region. Fire sprinklers burst in several places. That compromised the electrical system. With no power and no fire suppression system, the township fire department ordered the mall to lock its doors.
Sears, which owns its portion of the property, remains open. But the prognosis for the rest of center, recently dubbed New Jersey's saddest mall, is grim.
Mayor Brian J. Carlin said officials have heard nothing from the mall's owners, Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC of Las Vegas.
"They haven't let us know if they intend to reopen and make repairs," Carlin said.
A resurgence is unlikely. For months, Corters and Carlin have heard rumors that Moonbeam was planning to sell in March. Officials learned of a pending sale only after a potential buyer approached them. Moonbeam has remained as silent as the mall's corridors. The company did not respond to several requests for comment.
Carlin would like to see a vibrant center with eateries, bars, and a mix of national and local retailers. "We're at a very good location. We have four liquor licenses. I'd love to see it redeveloped. But I'm not sure if my vision is viable."
Expert say online shopping will kill one in five malls during the next few years, "It's part of the retail apocalypse," especially affecting department stores, said Carlin. "The economy is changing."
The mall owners ordered a food pantry and a ministry to vacate at the end of December, Carlin said. They had been operating at the mall rent-free.
He said one development group has proposed converting the mall into warehousing. "We had no interest in doing that," Carlin said. Another suggested a combination of warehousing and retail. "Too much warehouse, not enough retail," Carlin said. Another proposed warehousing, but added 850 residences and five-story buildings.
"That would put stress on our infrastructure and our schools," he said. "We all have our ideas, but the constraints make change difficult."