Pulse: Chatter: Trouble: Hype for Rent

Collingswood was the new darling of downtown revival. Until …

It wasn’t so long ago (last year) that media outlets (including, well, us) were touting postcard-cute Collingswood as the “new” New Hope. But a funny thing happened on its journey on the downtown urban-renewal express: It may have run out of gas.

Like the gap-filled mouth of a six-year-old making bank off the tooth fairy, Haddon Avenue’s rows of storefronts are peppered with empty display windows — a dozen in the span from the 500 block to the 800 block. “I located my first store in Collingswood because of its reputation as a hip, gallery-friendly place,” says Marc Zdon, who owns a furniture-painting studio. “But you look out the window and no one’s walking around.” In the first three months he was open, he failed to sell a single piece.

In recent years, a roaring real estate market, frequent festivals and glowing press converged to anoint Collingswood as the latest Q&A (quaint and artsy) destination. But while 2007 remained a banner year for commercial starts — some 27 new businesses opened — struggling merchants are realizing you need more than press releases to pay the bills. “When I opened my store, other owners came in to tell me there was no way I was going to make it,” says Sharon Williams, who debuted her toy store, Why Be Board?, in 2005. They were right: She lasted 14 months.

Locals say the avenue’s odd, irrelevant mix of stores selling sewing-machine parts, fire extinguishers, couture and high-end art makes browsing difficult; most shops close before the dinner crowd descends, meaning diners can’t shop while they wait for a table or after they pay the check. (Another strike: The town’s dry.) And unlike New Hope or Lambertville, Collingswood is located just 15 minutes from downtown Philly and its myriad choices. Finally, profits are getting squeezed by high rents, up by a third in the past three years.

But you can still find Collingswood cheerleaders. Merchants who’ve closed, argues Gerry Banmiller, president of the Business Improvement District, had “bad business plans, insufficient capital, or the belief that all they had to do was open the door and business would rush in.” Mayor Jim Maley points to the construction of an upscale downtown condo/retail complex. “We’re the only Main Street I know of that has added about 12,000 square feet of new retail space that has filled,” he says. “I don’t know of any Main Street that wouldn’t trade our problems for our successes.”

Perhaps. “We opened temporarily at the Moorestown Mall for the holidays to see if we could thrive somewhere with more foot traffic,” says John Murabito, who is waiting to dump his Haddon Avenue silk-flower shop when his lease expires in two years. “The mall store’s doing unbelievably well. We’re going to look for a location in Mount Laurel or Marlton.”