Except for the piped-in music, the Voorhees mall was nearly silent shortly before lunchtime this week.
At a perfume kiosk, a young man wondered whether he would sell more than a bottle or two that day. Seniors crowded together over coffee and Danish at tables in the mostly empty food court.
"I like it here. It's nice and peaceful. There's none of the riffraff," said Connie Sparks, who was dining with a friend.
Once one of South Jersey's most visited indoor shopping centers, the former Echelon Mall - now called Voorhees Town Center - fell on hard times in the 1990s. Its deteriorating physical structure and location far from a highway led shoppers to frequent malls in Cherry Hill and Deptford instead.
In 2003, the property was purchased by Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which is now three years into a $150 million effort to transform it into a downtown-like center for the sprawling town.
The company tore down half the mall to make way for apartments, condominiums, office space, and an outdoor boulevard with shops and restaurants. The other half received a face-lift.
With construction nearly complete, retail outlets and consumers have been slow to return to the mall, at Somerdale and Burnt Mill Roads, which counts Macy's and Boscov's among its tenants.
The relocation of Voorhees Township's administrative offices to Town Center on May 16 is the latest step in fusing a connection with local residents, says mall management.
The mall has become "the downtown Voorhees never had. It solidifies it as the town center," said Joe Coradino, president of PREIT Services, the operating arm of a publicly traded company that operates the Voorhees mall and others in 14 states.
The 22,000-square-foot town hall - which PREIT says is the nation's only facility of its kind in a mall - is a modern, glass-and-wood space on the second floor. After trawling for bargains - two men's suits for $150 at one store - residents can ride the escalator upstairs to pay for a dog license, pay taxes, or file permits for a home addition.
Municipal court sessions there on Mondays could attract potential retail customers, said Township Committeeman Harry Platt. And then there are the 75 or so employees of the township's offices.
"It's at least a couple hundred more people in foot traffic than you would have had otherwise," Platt said. "I was at the coffee shop the other day, and the guy behind the register said he had seen more traffic since we relocated."
There are other signs that the redevelopment is working, Coradino said.
He has leased 70 percent of the retail space along the new outdoor boulevard, he said, though most of the storefronts have yet to be occupied. And while some of apartments and condominiums are under construction, the occupancy rate is more than 90 percent in the buildings that have been open for more than two months.
"We had no way to predict in late 2007," when the overhaul began, "that we were going to find ourselves in the worst economy in modern history," Coradino said. "That said, we always looked at this as a long-term play."
The township paid $5.5 million to buy and renovate space for its offices and to move in, Platt said.
The decision to relocate was partly to help Town Center, which has an assessed value of $64.6 million and contributes significantly to the township's tax rolls. But the township also had outgrown the outdated administration building on State Route 561.
"We've tripled in size since 1974, when that building was built," Platt said. "To keep repairing that building was costing more than the new facility."
Voorhees plans to put the former town hall up for sale when the real estate market rebounds, Platt said.
While maintaining the look of a traditional retail mall, the inside of Voorhees Town Center also has changed. The second floor has mostly been cleared of shops to make way for other office space.
Aose Gao, a Chinese immigrant, opened a massage business on the ground floor about a year ago. Thursday she sat anxiously waiting for customers, with a translation device to help her answer clients' questions.
But she did know at least one English expression.
"Business, not good," she said.