A group of entrepreneurs whose trendy restaurants helped jump-start Asbury Park's resurgence at the Jersey Shore is turning its attention to Burlington City, a distressed Delaware River community on the other side of the state.
A business group that calls itself Smith says it is closing on 10 properties throughout the city and hopes to convert at least two of them into eateries modeled after its successful Shore restaurants. The first, which would be in a 16,000-square-foot fire hall, would be a Porta restaurant, the latest in a small chain of bustling, upscale Neapolitan pizza places with octopus and other specialties on the menu.
"We fell in love with Burlington City," said Jim Watt, an architect and one of five partners in the design, marketing, and real estate development group. Watt said the group was investing heavily in the city and planned to open the pizza restaurant, a high-end tavern, and a gourmet coffee cafe over the next 12 to 18 months.
"Real estate prices were very low and made what we want to do very feasible," he said, adding that there were some government subsidies and loans available for renovations. "We believe the place has a huge potential."
The eateries are just the first wave of changes planned for Burlington, a quaint historic city whose downtown is marred by vacant storefronts and the recent shuttering of an elegant, long-established restaurant, Cafe Gallery. The blue-collar community of 10,000 at the foot of the Burlington-Bristol Bridge is also struggling to replace or repair boarded-up and foreclosed-upon rowhouses.
In May, the City Council hired a redevelopment consultant, Jim Kennedy, for $54,000 a year to design a strategy to create a new look for the downtown and to attract business. Kennedy plans to present a package of recommendations at a council meeting next month.
The former Rahway mayor got his experience by leading development efforts in his own decaying industrial North Jersey town during a 20-year tenure that ended when he decided against seeking another term three years ago. Kennedy wooed the Smith group to Burlington over the summer after Watt contacted his company, Skye Consulting, and said they had $20 million to invest and were interested in finding an economically challenged community with business opportunities.
"People like Jim and his group are referred to as 'prospectors,' the first guys in, and they're hard to get," Kennedy said.
But Burlington, he said, was an easy sell. It has magnificent river views and sits along a light-rail line linking it to Philadelphia, 30 minutes away, he said. An arts and culture scene that can "bring funk to the area" and act as a growth catalyst had already picked up traction and has more potential, he said.
Kennedy also pointed out the city has a rich history, noting it is where Ben Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant, and other famous figures lived for a time.
Two other investor groups have since expressed interest in the city, he said, declining to name them.
Kennedy also met with Richard Newton, a partner and landscape architect with Olin Studios, a Philadelphia firm redesigning that city's Dilworth Plaza. Kennedy said Newton had ideas for how Burlington might improve the aesthetics of the grassy five-acre public grounds along the river.
"This is a world-class piece of property," Kennedy said, adding that it could host festivals and concerts for 5,000 people. "It allows the city to become a destination."
Newton said that he walked the waterfront with Kennedy and that it could be made more attractive by "moving earth around, planting, creating paths, and maybe gardens with beautiful smells and colors" and also by making it able to "withstand lots of people" during events.
Kennedy will propose hiring Olin and also will suggest bringing in a developer to construct 300 to 350 market-rate apartments on vacant land near the riverfront. The development, he said, would help sustain new businesses in the city.
Meanwhile, the Smith group is moving forward with plans to acquire the properties and get local approvals for its ventures.
Smith is slated to settle on the Endeavor Emergency Squad and Fire Company No. 1 building this month after negotiating to buy it from the city and the volunteer company for $175,000, according to Dave Ballard, the city's business administrator. The building is part of the city's redevelopment zone and will require renovations, he said.
The fire hall would house Porta, door in Italian. It would be decorated with an assortment of old doors, similar to the other restaurants in the chain, Watt said. It is expected to have a seating capacity of 250 and dance space.
Watt said the Smith group's expertise was acquiring deteriorating or vacant buildings and finding creative ways to reuse them.
Founded seven years ago, Smith owns and operates six restaurants and is building 21 condominiums above a French brasserie it plans to open in the next few weeks in an 11-story building that formerly housed the gas company in Asbury Park.
Smith opened the first Porta three years ago in the nightclub where Bruce Springsteen first met Clarence Clemons, a block from the famed Stone Pony. A New York Times food critic gave Porta a glowing review, and on a busy night, 900 custom pizzas are baked in an 850-degree brick oven, Watt said.
Mayor Jim Fazzone says he believes sleepy "Mayberry" is on the cusp of becoming a more vibrant community. "Watt's group is coming in and buying up prime locations all over the city," he said. "And he's done wonders anyplace he goes."
Fazzone said he and other city officials were aware Burlington had a lot to offer but just didn't have the resources to bring the city out of its economic decline. Then, in the spring, City Council hired Kennedy to help get the city noticed and get a strategy going, he said.
Investors "have fallen in love with the town," he said. "They say our town has the best bones of any town - its infrastructure, the river, the history, and the two rail stops on the line. . . . They're even moving here."