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Grocery chain set to anchor planned Camden transit village

The Fresh Grocer chain of Drexel Hill signed a letter of intent Monday to open a store in a planned Camden transit village, pending a state decision on Thursday whether to approve $50 million in tax credits for the entire village project.

The Fresh Grocer chain of Drexel Hill signed a letter of intent Monday to open a store in a planned Camden transit village, pending a state decision on Thursday whether to approve $50 million in tax credits for the entire village project.

The Fresh Grocer would be part of the long-delayed Haddon Avenue Transit Village project, which has been in the works since 2008 but has yet to put a shovel in the ground. One of the main issues was finding a supermarket to anchor the planned mixed-use development in a city that has only one supermarket for its 77,000 residents.

Grapevine Development of Moorestown, the village developer, together with the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, the Camden County Improvement Authority, and now Fresh Grocer, has applied to get up to $50.3 million in tax credits for what is expected to be a $74 million development.

The Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit Program, administered by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, allows businesses in the state's nine designated Urban Hub municipalities to apply for tax credits for development within a half-mile of transit stations. However, the law makes an exception for Camden, allowing developers to apply for credits if projects are within one mile. Campbell Soup Co., which is within a mile from the Walter Rand Transportation Center, was approved last year to receive $34 million in tax credits through the program.

If the Economic Development Authority approves the Haddon Avenue Transit Village for the tax-credit program, the site could become home to Camden's first new supermarket in 30 years. It would be within a half-mile of the Ferry Avenue PATCO station.

The city has a few grocery stores beyond the large Pathmark on Mount Ephraim Avenue on Camden's southern edge, but they are less than half the size of Pathmark and the proposed 50,000-square-foot Fresh Grocer. Another medium-size grocery store is slated to open in a few weeks in East Camden.

The 16,000-square-foot Fine Fare Supermarket on the corner of Federal Avenue and 21st Street is waiting for final building permits before it opens.

"Camden is a city that is growing a lot," store manager Jesus Jimenez said in Spanish, "and there is a need for more grocery stores."

The store will try to serve the nutritional needs of the area's heavily Latino population with plenty of Hispanic products, Jimenez said.

The Haddon Avenue Transit Village, which calls for 40,000 square feet of office space, about 400 housing units, a 50,000-square-foot grocery, and a 700-space garage, was initially set to break ground over the summer at the White Horse Pike intersection near Collingswood.

At an October meeting of Camden's Economic Recovery Board, in which the nonprofit redevelopment group Cooper's Ferry Partnership was awarded a $500,000 grant to fund the design and engineering of the project, Cooper's Ferry officials spoke of Fresh Grocer as almost a done deal.

But in mid-December, private developer Randy Cherkas of Grapevine Development was talking with other grocery chains. Those involved with the project said then they did not want to move forward with the project until they had a commitment from a supermarket chain.

The tax credits were a big incentive to get Fresh Grocer to Camden, said a source close to the project.

"In this kind of market, in this kind of economy, and in Camden, the reality is you need so much subsidy . . . to entice a supermarket to come to Camden," a source close to the project said on condition of anonymity, citing the pending deal.

But a Fresh Grocer spokeswoman said the move to Camden fit with the company's portfolio of urban markets.

Fresh Grocer signed an agreement last year with Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit group devoted to fighting childhood obesity, to open five new stores in the next five years within a mile or two of a food desert, company spokeswoman Carly Spross said.

The acute shortage of supermarkets has landed parts of Camden on the list of the country's worst food deserts - defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as low-income urban areas in which at least a third of residents live more than a mile from a supermarket that does at least $2 million in annual sales.

"It's really part of our mission," Spross said about being in areas such as Camden.

The company has five other stores in the Greater Philadelphia area. Its first New Jersey store will open later this year in New Brunswick, Spross said.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority will vote on the Camden project's application at 10 a.m. Thursday in Trenton.