For nearly 100 years, Moorestown, New Jersey has been a dry town. That might change if voters approve a referendum on the November ballot. The referendum asks that alcohol can be served, at the very least, at restaurants at the Moorestown mall. The mall’s owners are saying beer, wine and spirits are critical to its survival.
You might say that Moorestown has two personalities–a quaint Main street, chock-full of unique shops and churches and schools–and then a mile south across busy route there’s the Moorestown Mall. While it features several anchor stores, and numerous smaller shops there’s a 30 percent vacancy rate, plus competition from a thriving Cherry Hill mall which is just a 10 minute drive west.
“Depressing. I’m just not very pleased now with the way it looks, the way it feels,” said Moorestown Mayor John Button. “There’s nobody there, relative to the mall a mile down the street, so I’m very hopeful that they’ll find a way to revitalize that mall, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.”
The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREET) is backing a two-part referendum. One would allow alcohol to be bought and sold anywhere in the township. The other would enable restaurants at the mall only to serve beer and wine, along with stronger stuff. Its a question which has many Moorestown residents at odds.
Michael Boyell has lived here 50 years. “We’ve never wanted alcohol in this town, we don’t want it in the future,” said Boyell. “Don’t like the business it brings, the customers, or the uh relationship with the town.”Resident Doug Adair doesn’t see it the same way. “The town was founded by a tavern owner, so I think its kind of appropriate that we do that now, especially since its important that businesses have an opportunity to survive in this economic climate,” said Adair.
Moorestown didn’t go dry until Prohibition. The mall was built back in 1963, and in the last 25 years it, like other similar shopping centers, has seen real change. Shoppers with busy schedules don’t spend hours wandering the mall like they used to. Joseph Coradino, president of PREET, wants to introduce upscale restaurants which offer alcohol, because quite often he says, diners will also shop.
“To use a very current analogy: hot dogs and baseball. Right? Its something that, they belong together. Its something an industry trend, its something that’s been going on for a number of years, and it’s a tried and true technique,” said Coradino.
The Cherry Hill mall, just up the road, is thriving and it features restaurants that serve alcohol. PREET owns that mall as well, so what’s the plan to make Moorestown stand out?
“One is, add a 12-screen theater there, with stadium seating, state of the art digital sound, in addition to four restaurants–four fine dining restaurants with liquor,” said Coradino.
Coradino says PREET is prepared to pay $4 million to Moorestown for four liquor licenses. Mayor Button says considering the economy, that money would be a windfall. “If this were to pass, and council set the price of licenses that resulted in $4 million coming into the township, this is a wonderful time to have that happen, because we’ve worked very very hard on the expense side of the budget,” said Button. “It’s much more difficult to fund the revenue side of the budget, and we’re always looking at ways we can do that for the benefit of the taxpayers.”
Officially, Mayor Button has not endorsed a yes or no vote. Joe Coradino refuses to consider that the referendum might be rejected, although he warns of the consequences:
“One can’t look at the property as either having restaurants with liquor, or staying the way it is,” said Coradino. “You know we have tenants in the mall that are looking to not renew their leases, as the leases come up, and those that are seeking rent relief, we need to reverse that trend.”An alcohol referendum was voted down just 4 years ago and the law requires waiting five years to ask voters to reconsider. For the moment, backers have been able to get around that by changing the wording to exclude the drinking of alcohol on trains, airplanes, and boats. A local attorney is suing to have it stricken from the ballot.
Resident Ceciley Binegar isn’t sure which way she will vote. “A lot of people have lost their jobs within this community and it would bring jobs,” said Binegar. “However you know with alcohol there are other things you have to worry about, such as people drinking and driving not necessarily people from our community, but people from out of town who don’t have that bond with us here.”