Rent is high and customers are few at the family-owned Super China Buffet in the Echelon Mall's near-empty food court.
On particularly bad days, restaurant owner Nick Huang says he gets no customers. The once-thriving, 48-year-old Voorhees complex is now a shadow of its former self, home to deserted storefronts and broken escalators.
"At dinner time, it's totally dead. People need a reason to come to this mall again," Huang said as relatives cooked in the back kitchen.
But hope is in sight. Last week, the township's planning board approved the beginning stages of an effort to save the shopping plaza by condemning part of the property and redeveloping it. The eminent domain plan now moves to the Township Council for a vote. Town officials, meanwhile, are shopping around for potential buyers with a plan to rescue it.
Over the past two years, a dozen stores at the mall have been shuttered, including Kay Jewelers, Qdoba, and one of its last remaining anchors, Macy's. Its occupancy rate is now nearing 50 percent, and only one anchor, Boscov's, still remains.
The mall's demise, township officials say, began in the 2000s with the closing of J.C. Penney Co. and Sears and the advent of online shopping. The situation worsened when New York-based real estate group Namdar bought the property in 2015 for $13.4 million from the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust.
Since then, the new owner has neglected simple repairs and what was once a solid partnership with Voorhees, said Township Administrator Larry Spellman. The town recently had to fix lights outside of the Rizzieri Salon, where late-night classes let out, and bill the owners.
"The Namdar owners are absentee," Spellman said. "When they first came here, they cut the landscaping and maintenance staff and have done nothing to attract new business. We can't sit back and wait until this place totally falls apart."
Built in 1970, the shopping center debuted to much fanfare. In Spellman's office, a photo of the mall's grand opening hangs on the wall showing a parking lot packed with cars.
Al Busch, 63, of Pine Hill, sat at a table in the food court this week and reminisced about the rise and fall of Echelon Mall. As a teenager in the '70s, he frequented the complex with friends and attended summer concerts in the parking lot hosted by radio station WIOQ.
"It's just a shame what it looks like now," Busch said.
Now the two-story indoor mall is a patchwork of old and new.
In 2003, PREIT purchased the property, hoping to revitalize it in two phases. A decade ago, a portion of the mall was demolished to make room for the mixed-use Voorhees Town Center — a collection of open-air shops, restaurants, and housing with a Main Street feel. The plan cost $150 million and was largely successful — until it stalled under Namdar's management.
Namdar and its adviser, Mason Asset Management, did not respond to requests for comment.
Drive past the new condos and bustling restaurant row, and what's left of the original Echelon Mall sits mostly vacant.
Creative ideas have kept afloat the township's largest taxpayer, which pays $900,000 a year. In 2011, the township used a bond to move its municipal building inside the complex, paid mostly through tax revenue from the center's new businesses and residents. The goal: increase the mall's foot traffic by drawing in residents who might need marriage licenses, death certificates, or permits from the town.
Still, the mall's location and proximity to better shopping centers has been a roadblock.
Less than 12 miles away are the Cherry Hill Mall and Deptford Mall. Both are situated off of Route 38 and Route 42. Off Route 73, the outdoor Promenade at Sagemore in Marlon opened six miles away in 2001. Meanwhile, Echelon Mall is tucked away on Somerdale and Burnt Mill Roads.
Republican Committeeman Michael Freidman said Voorhees officials picture the mall being transformed into an entertainment destination with some retail, though there is no concrete vision yet. He said the town is searching for a developer to create a "walkable space" that appeals to a younger demographic.
This week, the township has two meetings with potential developers.
"We've spoken with people who have real, genuine interest in reviving the space," Friedman said. "All the folks in the mall who have been loyal business people will be part of the discussions moving forward … but we would be completely negligent if we sat here and did nothing while it fails."