The marquee of what used to be the Westmont Theater is all lit up again, and the view of Haddon Avenue from Finizio's is much improved.
"That old theater was such an eyesore, I didn't look out the window for 20 years," says owner Matthew Kratchwell, whose restaurant is across from what's now a 24-hour Planet Fitness gym.
Kratchwell is not alone in liking what he sees in Westmont, the downtown section of Haddon Township, which extends along Haddon Avenue from Cuthbert Boulevard pretty much all the way to the border with Haddonfield.
That adjacent borough, as well as Collingswood and the Parkside neighborhood of Camden, shares a five-mile stretch of the long-ago toll road, which also is known as Camden County Route 561.
Those three communities are seeing an uptick in redevelopment or retail activity on their portions of the avenue. But the evolution is most noticeable in Westmont: The theater's striking transformation into Planet Fitness and the completion of two residential projects with a total of 330 units are generating fresh vitality downtown.
And the grassy lot next to the theater may soon host a pop-up beer garden.
"We've been working on this for a long time," Mayor Randy Teague says. "It's finally coming to fruition."
He's giving me a tour of the $52 million Haddon Towne Center, an impressive, seven-building apartment complex on the Dy-Dee Diaper laundry site just west of Crystal Lake Avenue; his enthusiasm about what management there promotes as "resort-style living" could well be contagious.
Given that Dy-Dee threatened to become synonymous with boondoggle during the project's litigious decade-plus gestation — as a lonely "Haddon Towne Center" sign stood fading in the center of a dead zone — the mayor's enthusiasm is understandable.
And I'm glad local urbanists and residents helped persuade the township to press the developer, Fieldstone Associates, to add a half-dozen retail storefronts (it hadn't planned for any) and make the cosmetic, but effective, facade changes that help give the complex a strong presence on the avenue.
"It feels like part of the town, and part of the downtown, instead of being set back behind a parking lot," says Teague, who's 53 and grew up in the township.
Unlike Camden, Collingswood, and Haddonfield, Westmont historically hasn't had a significant shopping district on Haddon Avenue.
A handful of blocks on the mile-long stretch are all or partly filled with walkable little business strips, separated by strip malls, gas stations (some repurposed), and stand-alone commercial enterprises with their own parking lots.
Rather than lament this rather jumbled streetscape, Kate Burns, the township's liaison to Westmont's Business Improvement District, says the auto-dependent commercial enterprises make downtown more convenient for many.
Having been a driver, as well as a pedestrian, on the avenue — where a lively Wednesday afternoon farmers' market attracts plenty of foot traffic — I'd say Burns is onto something.
Rather than attempting to reproduce Collingswood's bustling downtown, or create a facsimile of the charming commercial heart of Haddonfield, the center of Westmont may turn into a comfortable and distinctive hybrid.
"Rising tides raise all boats," says Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, adding that a new grocery store and construction of a mixed-use building on Haddon Avenue demonstrate the wisdom of his borough's encouragement of downtown residential development.
"Anything that helps any of our towns, including the good things going on in Camden and Haddon Township, helps everyone on Haddon Avenue," says Maley.
Remi Fortunato, Haddonfield's retail recruiter, says what's happening in Westmont "certainly can't hurt" business in the downtown core, which is mainly along Kings Highway. She notes there are no longer retail vacancies on the borough's 400 block of North Haddon, which had not been the case for some time.
There's also a proposal to squeeze a new performing and visual arts facility into venerable Boxwood Hall property on the avenue, which boosters say will be a boon to nearby Haddonfield businesses.
And in Camden, where Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center plans to modernize, a charter school is under construction, and $4 million in infrastructure improvements recently have been completed on the avenue, "there's great potential" for retail growth, says Gregory Carter, a board member of Parkside Business and Community in Partnership Inc.
Back in downtown Westmont, there remain empty storefronts, including most of the retail space at Haddon Towne (an Italian restaurant plans to open there, according to the mayor).
But as a resident of the area for 40 years, including 27 in the township, I see Haddon Avenue looking better and better.
I seem to be spending more time in downtown Westmont, and not simply while trying to get somewhere. When I'm on Haddon Avenue, I feel as if I've gotten there.