A chain-link fence and some overgrown weeds surround a small, gravel lot on Market Street in Camden, which Damon Pennington likes to call "the artery of the city."
Two years ago, the 44-year-old entrepreneur had an idea: transform the downtown street dotted with empty buildings into a bustling "restaurant row." It might have seemed far-fetched then, but now, his vision could be unfolding.
Pennington owns a half-dozen properties around Market Street from Third to Fifth Streets that he began buying four years ago. Several tenants are lined up to fill the buildings in the next two years, including a bakery, a technology services company, and a fast-casual restaurant.
His first project? A "pop-up" beer garden set to open Aug. 1 at the now-empty 317 Market lot. The pop-up, he said, will mix art, drinking, and an "Instagrammable" atmosphere. Named the Camden Arts Yard, it will be open until November directly adjacent to Pennington's soon-to-open restaurant, 315 Signature.
"It'll be big with the younger people. We hope this is going to be the new Northern Liberties," said Pennington, president of CFGB Inc., a Camden-based holding company.
Four recycled shipping containers will house a bar, a stage, an office, seating, and art displays at the 6,000-square-foot property. Pennington said he's budgeted almost $100,000 for the project and plans to hire about a dozen people to staff it.
To draw in a younger crowd, Next Food Network Star winner Aaron McCargo Jr. — a Camden native — is creating the menus for Pennington's projects. The beer garden's menu will feature 12 appetizers, called "artetizers" to keep in line with the theme.
"Aaron has done television shows all over the world, and now he's trying to bring it back home," Pennington said. "He's from South Jersey, so that makes this more special."
The area near City Hall, he said, is perfectly positioned to become Camden's restaurant row, sandwiched between a number of companies filled with thousands of workers and employees who need a place to eat after work.
To the west sit corporate offices that now line Camden's waterfront, and to the east, Subaru's new headquarters. Holtec International, which opened its 50-acre waterfront campus in September, plans to bring 1,000 jobs to the city by 2020. Also, 800 Subaru employees made the move to Camden from Cherry Hill in April.
"We don't want people leaving right after work and going back to Moorestown or Voorhees or Cherry Hill," Pennington said. "We want to give them a place to socialize in Camden."
City officials expect to soon see a surge of businesses on Market, said city spokesman Vince Basara, similar to the thriving main street that's East Camden's Federal Street, where Latino restaurants and stores line a stretch between 21st and 27th Streets.
Basara said occupancy is at 100 percent on that section of Federal. In the coming year, he said Market Street may be a parallel.
A new pop-up cafe, Lunch Box Cafe, opened outside City Hall on Market in May, funded by a $500,000 state Urban Enterprise Zone grant. Less than a half-mile from the upcoming beer garden, the former RCA Victor office building, which had been used by the Camden School District, was sold last year to a developer planning to convert the building into office space.
"There's a lot of interest on Market Street," he said. "We have everything we need in place for a restaurant row on Market Street to happen."
It's part of an effort to draw small businesses downtown, Basara said.
Rutgers-Camden built a $62.5 million Nursing and Science building on Federal last year, but a number of empty Market Street stores still have "for sale" signs hanging in windows.
Some of Pennington's properties, including Signature 315, received business improvement incentive grants from the state Economic Development Authority. The grants, which cover up to $20,000 in project costs, are meant for small businesses on Market, Cooper Street, or Fifth Street downtown, and Federal Street in East Camden.
In total, Pennington has received grants of up to $80,000 for improvements at his properties at 309, 315, 517-19, and 423 Market, according to the EDA.
"Small businesses want to locate near American Water and the Liberty Property Trust …. They want to be around that activity," Basara said. "Economic activity is on an upswing."
For Pat Brown, an employee of Cafe Salad Works on Market, the soon-to-open beer garden is welcome news.
Taking orders from a string of customers Tuesday afternoon, Brown said she hopes the project next door is a sign of revitalization. Business is never slow, she said, yet the street is dotted with empty stores.
"Hopefully it'll bring this area somewhat back to life," said Brown, who has worked at the shop for six years. "Something to bring in more traffic."