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Seasonal tenants wanted for Camden waterfront sites

CAMDEN The state is looking to seasonally lease three grassy lots on the busiest part of the waterfront as they wait for permanent developers to come calling.

CAMDEN The state is looking to seasonally lease three grassy lots on the busiest part of the waterfront as they wait for permanent developers to come calling.

An outdoor beer garden, tiki restaurant, or craft fair are all attractive options, officials say - but they're open to ideas.

The state Economic Development Authority last month sent out requests for proposals (RFPs) for interim use of two acres, spread over three parcels of land between Adventure Aquarium and Market Street. Proposals are due by May 13.

The properties had previously been locked up in a development option agreement with Columbus-based Steiner + Associates as part of a plan to build "Cooper's Crossing" but were released under a revised agreement last year.

Steiner + Associates says it still plans to develop mixed-use retail, hotel, entertainment, and residential spaces on 24 acres of waterfront property. The project, whose codeveloper is Dranoff Properties, originally called for 30 acres.

The EDA "wanted to see what they might be able to put together on the other property and we felt as long as it's consistent with our master plan, it's in the best interest of everybody," said Barry Rosenberg, president of Steiner Investments.

Rosenberg said Cooper's Crossing was still a go. The company was granted a two-year extension on its development option last year.

"The road systems are being built pursuant to the larger plan and we're actively looking for both residential and hotel interest," Rosenberg said.

He blamed the real estate market for the glacial progress thus far - the development rights were first secured in October 2004 and the area has sat blanketed by grass and parking lots ever since.

"What's happened? In general, development has not been happening, obviously. But now we're starting to see that pick up in areas like Camden with the Economic Opportunity Act," Rosenberg said, referencing the recent legislation which gives increased tax credits to businesses. "We think there's truly an opportunity to put something together there."

Donna Sullivan, director of real estate for the EDA, said the temporary leases would run from June to October. The agency will send out RFPs for permanent development on the site in the next 90 days, she said.

"Now that the land is back in EDA hands we want to attract more businesses to the waterfront and give more visitors opportunities there that didn't exist before," she said. "It's also something that would be a good match for the other entertainment facilities at the waterfront."

The RFP said priority consideration would be given to food and beverage concessions "such as a beer garden, tiki restaurant, or similar outdoor theme concessions" and secondary consideration will be given to arts or craft vendors, family-friendly entertainment activities, and cultural events.

Mike Devlin, executive director of the Camden Children's Garden, said the dining options for families in the immediate area were few. The aquarium has a cafeteria and the garden, which does not have a license to make food, sells packaged foods. Lunch trucks occasionally stop by, and Vitarelli's, a restaurant across the street, is open Monday through Friday.

"If you get a good crowd on the weekend, it's not available to them," Devlin said. "Hopefully they get some interest, it works, and more people come down."

Devlin said the garden wouldn't be responding to the RFP themselves. They were nearly shut down by the state over an ownership dispute and coming off a historically brutal winter, they now have to replant many of the community gardens that serve Camden neighborhoods.

At an optional site tour Tuesday for parties interested in the summer lease, only Cooper's Ferry Partnership attended. The group has done much work on the waterfront and last month presented an outdoor lights and entertainment festival at the North Camden waterfront.

Dave Foster, president of Cooper's Ferry Partnership, said the group had not yet decided if it will apply to use the land.

Camden's Economic Recovery Board (ERB), created in 2002 to authorize $175 million in recovery bonds, has slowed its work in recent years, having issued about $156 million of that money, said Erin Gold, spokeswoman for the EDA. Gold said combined EDA and ERB investments in Camden amount to $464 million since 2003.

Other plans for the waterfront include the North Camden redevelopment plan, approved by the City Council in April. Gold said the EDA would issue RFPs for the former Riverfront prison site in coming months.

The EDA also offered $12.7 million in incentives tied to the Economic Opportunity Act to WebiMax L.L.C., an online digital and marketing services company looking to relocate to either Camden or Delaware. Gold said the move would bring 100 new jobs and retain 50, to office space on the waterfront's Aquarium Loop.

Representatives for Webimax did not return calls for comment.