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Vineland looks to the future rather than its storied past

VINELAND - This has long been a place where people tend to talk a lot about how things used to be.

A man shops in the bakery at the two-year-old Landis Marketplace in Vineland.
A man shops in the bakery at the two-year-old Landis Marketplace in Vineland.Read moreTOM MIHALEK / For The Inquirer

VINELAND - This has long been a place where people tend to talk a lot about how things used to be.

So fond are some of the recollections at a local pizzeria about "old Vineland" one might think the wide main street, Landis Avenue, was paved with something other than macadam back when people traveled from Philadelphia and New York to shop here.

Over a latte at a vendor's stall at the new farmers' market, they'll froth on about the miles and miles of neighborhoods of once well-kept homes with the big front yards filled with flowering fruit trees. And the rich-earth farms on the outskirts of town that seemed to epitomize a kind of 19th-century agricultural utopia envisioned by Charles K. Landis, who founded Vineland in 1862.

"It was a beautiful place when I came here right after the war," said Yvonne Springer, 79, who moved to Vineland when she was about 10 after World War II. "The homes, the trees . . . the air just smelled so beautiful in the springtime with all the flowers everywhere."

So in the 1960s and '70s, when Vineland began suffering the diminishing relevance of its downtown - after a new mall was built a few miles away and working-class jobs in the mainstay industries of glass and clothing manufacturing left, seeking cheaper labor on foreign shores - a cycle of failed attempts to revitalize Landis Avenue began.

"But nothing really worked," said Sandy Forosisky, Vineland director of economic development and board director of the Vineland Development Corp. "There were five studies done beginning in the 1980s, but nothing was ever followed through on."

But the latest effort - using as anchors the historic Landis Theater and a two-year-old farmers' market-style enterprise called the Landis Marketplace - seeks to reinvent the focus of downtown, according to Russell J. Swanson, executive director of the Vineland Downtown Improvement District.

Vineland City Council is also expected to vote soon on a $14 million project to revitalize the corner of Landis and East Avenues with new senior housing and retail space, officials said.

Swanson said the idea now was also to tap into the Gen X and millennial markets by making Landis Avenue a hipster destination with live entertainment venues, microbreweries, vintage shops, pop-up markets, and incubator and cooperative work spaces.

And to use the Landis Theater for live shows on a continuous basis, like the forthcoming Mavericks concert at 8 p.m. Saturday. The eclectic American band combines neo-traditional, Latin, and rockabilly music.

"People here do have a tendency to talk a lot about how Vineland used to be . . . about 'old Vineland,' " says Swanson, whose family spent nearly 60 years operating a hardware store in the Cumberland County city until last year, when the enterprise was sold.

Swanson and others say they've witnessed the city's change over the last 40 years from a thriving manufacturing and agricultural center to an economically depressed municipality in the county with the lowest per capita income in the state.

"But now we realize that we have to change the model . . . we have to change the focus of what we are doing with our downtown to be successful," Swanson said. "No matter how great it once was, we can't go back to that. It can never be that place again."

Swanson and others insist a standard retail redo won't do for a street lined with an interesting - and well-kept - collection of early-20th-century storefronts and office buildings that stretch for about a mile along Landis Avenue between East and West Avenues.

So when the Landis Theater underwent a $14 million renovation and reopened five years ago, locals thought it would soon become a hub for the revitalization effort. Shows, concerts, and other events at the remodeled art deco former movie house would bring out-of-town crowds to Vineland who would patronize local restaurants and other businesses. The city even launched a project to get restaurateurs to open eateries along Landis Avenue.

But in 2013, the theater closed because the Landis Theater Foundation, a nonprofit group established to manage the theater, operated with a model that didn't work, Forosisky said.

The foundation hired a manager to book events and oversee operation of the 880-seat theater but ultimately incurred too many costs, Forosisky said.

Forosisky said the Vineland Development Corp., which now operates the theater, was using outside promoters to produce the shows.

Instead of the theater foundation or the development agency incurring the financial risk involved in booking professional acts, private producers assume the responsibility under a "four-wall" rental agreement that pays Forosisky's agency a fee.

The development group is working with BRE Presents and Bob Rose Productions to produce at least a half-dozen shows in the next year. Local school groups are also slated to produce children's community theater shows and operate a summer camp for kids. A professional company also plans a stage production. And a church group rents the space on Sundays for its worship services, she said.

"Our goal is to have that theater booked and used every weekend of the year," Forosisky said.

That is music to the ears of performers like Mavericks drummer Paul Deakin, who will perform with the band at the Landis on Saturday.

"I always think it's cool to perform in historic venues like the Landis Theater because the acoustics are usually so good," Deakin said. "There is a lot of history there from all the performances that have come before us . . . and you can really feel that vibe."

Patricia A. Martinelli, curator of the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, agrees.

"Vineland is like a lot of small towns in America struggling to survive today," Martinelli said. "But I think that people here are beginning to have a genuine interest in appreciating what is here and what we need to preserve as we move into the future and create a new lease on life for this downtown."