The heart of Laurel Springs is ready to break.
A beloved building in the center of this cozy Camden County borough may have to be moved to make way for "nothing," Mayor Jack Severson says.
"It will be back to what it was before the building was there: asphalt," laments longtime resident Nancy Sachleben of the Laurel Springs Beautification and Historical Society.
The tiny organization maintains what everyone calls the Train Station, adjacent to a parking lot on Stone Road between East and West Atlantic Avenues.
Conrail owns the patch of ground beneath this handsome single-story structure, which the borough built 22 years ago to memorialize its actual train station and post office, both gone.
The lovingly tended "station" is a combination mini-museum, gathering spot, and unofficial Christmas headquarters (kids drop off letters to Santa there). It helps the borough retain its distinctiveness amid the jumbled sprawl of the nearby White Horse Pike - which many motorists probably think is Laurel Springs.
While Conrail has neither plans nor a buyer for the station site, the private railroad company wants to hike the annual rent it charges the borough from about $500 to $12,000. That's a 2,300 percent increase.
The mayor says Laurel Springs can't afford it and may instead relocate the station to a less-central, less visible piece of borough-owned land about a block away. "A one-time cost instead of an annual cost," says Severson, who retired as The Inquirer's travel editor in 2005 and was first elected two years later.
The prospect of relocation has led some local folks to establish a "Help Save the Laurel Springs Train Station" page on Facebook that likens Conrail to "Scrooge." Not exactly a festive season's greeting.
"This lease hasn't been increased in 50 years . . . and they've been paying practically nothing," spokesman John Enright says from Conrail's offices in Philadelphia. "We're trying to be reasonable about it."
A professional appraisal put the value of the half-acre parcel, including a skinny strip along the railroad track between the avenues, at $197,000. "This number isn't just out of the air," Enright says, noting the borough has a right to seek a professional appraisal as well.
"We're not trying to kick them out," he adds. "We try to be good corporate neighbors."
Laurel Springs (population 1,900, annual budget $2.6 million) made a $750 counteroffer that's been rejected, Severson says. So the borough sees no reason to pay for an appraisal because "Conrail seems to want to stick to their guns."
Says Enright: "We're not going to negotiate against ourselves. We know someone can't build a Wawa on the land, but we have an obligation to our owners to maximize the value of our assets. "
Come to think of it, so does Laurel Springs - a lovely little town that, ironically, owes its existence to the railroad.
In the late 1800s, the Philadelphia & Reading's Atlantic City main line sparked development of a resort, as well as residences, in what is now the borough.
Sachleben, who has lived in Laurel Springs for 69 of her 71 years, says young families move in and residents remain because of the community's sense of place. She's right: Laurel Springs is not a cookie-cutter suburb.
With its traditional, free-standing clock on the sidewalk, the station is the centerpiece of the cute, but rather sparse, downtown. "The station is where people sit to watch the parade on the Fourth of July," says beautification committee member Pat Tamburrina.
"It's a landmark, but we won't be able to call it a landmark when it's down the street and you can't see it," says businesswoman Sharon Harris, another committee stalwart.
Severson says Conrail is being "ridiculous."
I'd use another adjective: Unrealistic. It's 2010, Mr. Landlord; everyone's strapped for cash, including communities all over New Jersey. Laurel Springs is no exception; it got $130,000 less in state aid in 2010.
So, Conrail, why not phase-in a more modest rent increase over the next, say, five or 10 years?
By then the economy should be better. And by keeping the station building where it belongs, Laurel Springs will be better off, too.