Say the words "Cherry Hill" and "shopping" and many people will picture grand malls with big-name stores, landscaped parking lots, and enough overhead lighting to outshine Broadway.
Mention the township's "Erlton shopping district" on Route 70, however, and you will likely elicit groans and mutterings - from its own store owners and shopkeepers.
"We've been hearing for years about how they [the township] were going to do landscaping and streetlights and improve the road," Rich Dutkin, owner of Dutkin Collectibles, said last week.
"But look," he said, pointing out his front window to a narrow, tired sidewalk and cars streaming by. "Absolutely nothing. If I relied on foot traffic, I would have closed long ago."
The centerpiece of one of the earliest Cherry Hill neighborhoods to form after the Ben Franklin Bridge opened in 1926, Erlton's modest business district is today a hodgepodge of one-story storefronts - clapboard next to brick next to stucco next to stone - with most showing their age.
The main commercial strip, which is not a legal entity and has no official boundaries, extends for about three blocks from Locustwood Cemetery at Cooper Landing Road east to a gas station at Connecticut Avenue.
Its narrow, sometimes broken sidewalks are a patchwork of colors and textures. Utility poles and electrical boxes line the curbs. A narrow, occasional strip of grass passes for landscaping, and the parking options range between private and public, sketchy to dicey.
But the greatest vexation of all, most business owners agree, is State Route 70, also called Marlton Pike.
"Look," exclaimed Marco Gigliello, owner of Erlton Cash for Gold, and pointed to the four-lane state road whose disrepair here has become notorious.
Vehicles passing by were bouncing every 30 feet over its bumps and ruts, making audible clopping sounds.
"It's worn down to nothing," he said, indicating black road tar so thin that the old concrete substrate shone through. "But go up toward Ponzio's," he said, citing a popular diner a mile to the east, "and it's an inch thick."
The road surface is not all that grits the teeth of passing motorists.
Considered the "gateway" to South Jersey's largest township, Route 70 narrows from three lanes to two as it passes through Erlton, forcing 60,000 drivers a day to slow down or even creep through it.
"I kind of wish they would make it go underground through here," joked Kevin King, owner of Framers' Workroom, a frame shop on the north side of Route 70. "Making it look nicer here would go far," said Jeff Huddle, manager of All Marble & Granite, which sits at the corner of Edison Avenue on the north side of Route 70. "We keep getting notifications that they're going to redo our sidewalks, but nothing ever happens."
Like the Michelle Aimee Bridal shop across the street, All Marble has recently remade its facade in tan, stone-like bricks, added new signs.
"It's a very nice location," said Aimee Bertino, the bridal shop's owner. "We've been here 20 years. But in all that time the township has given us absolutely nothing for the taxes we pay."
Compounding most shop owners' frustration is their memory of a lofty vision for Route 70 that then-Mayor Bernie Platt unveiled in 2007.
In a presentation before the Courier-Post's editorial board that year, Platt said he and a 15-member citizen task force had submitted to the state Department of Transportation a plan for paved walkways, decorative lighting, and what the newspaper called "a canopy of 1,000 trees" lining Route 70 from its border with Pennsauken to Evesham.
Platt also envisioned widening the roadway to three lanes for its 8.3-mile length through the township, "including synchronized traffic lights, plenty of stacking lanes for left-hand turns and all utility lines buried underground," the Courier-Post reported.
The price tag would be a "couple of hundred million dollars," said Platt, but "it won't do anything to taxes in Cherry Hill because it's a state project."
Enunciated on the eve of the Great Recession, it was doomed from the start. For the last decade, the DOT has not even had funds to repave it.
Reached at the funeral home he owns in Cherry Hill, Platt declined through a coworker to comment on that plan.
Bridget Palmer, spokesman for the township, said last week that township officials shared the business owners' feeling that Erlton shopping district needed improvement.
"It's the closest we have for a downtown," Palmer said. "It's been on the radar for at least three mayors. But it always comes back to funding."
Further frustrating the township's response, she said, was the shabby state of Route 70's surface. She said the DOT has promised that it will begin a complete multimillion dollar repaving project starting this spring. It will not include road widening or the addition of lanes, Palmer said.
"We can't set any plans in motion until the road is done," she said, but urged shopkeepers and building owners to meet with the township to voice their vision for the strip in a concerted way.
State, county or local funds might become available for Erlton, she said, but another option would be for the shop owners to create an official business district along state guidelines.
Although not municipal entities, such districts typically assess property owners a monthly fee for improvements such as lighting and landscaping. What's more, said Palmer, they can vote to impose aesthetic improvements to the buildings themselves.
Making what she called the township's "gateway" an attractive destination "is very much on our radar," said Palmer. "It's not on front burner right now because we're waiting for Route 70" to be repaved.
"But it is," she said, "a priority."