There is more than 60,000 square feet of unoccupied retail space available in Toms River, and no one has agreed to fill it since its former tenant – Foodtown – closed its doors in 2015.
Managers at Toms River Center, located on Route 37 East just beside the Garden State Parkway, told the township’s zoning board on Wednesday night that they kept running into the same problem when prospective tenants came for a look: there’s no sign visible from the Parkway that can grab the attention of drivers and convince them to exit and visit the store. The lack of signage has caused national chains, including major gyms and home improvement stores, to pass on Toms River.
Finally, on Wednesday night, Toms River Center representatives proposed what they see as the definitive answer to their unique problem – a 100-foot tall sign that will display the names of two occupants who move in to the rear portion of the shopping plaza, where the Foodtown and Chase Bank spaces used to be located.
“This is sort of the gateway to Toms River, so having more than 10,000 square feet of vacant space is certainly a concern,” said attorney Dina Vicari, who represented Toms River Center.
Jeffrey Price, the shopping center’s property manager, said an approximately 130 to 140 foot wide row of trees in the right-of-way between Toms River Center and the Parkway prevents the site from being visible to drivers.
“We’ve lost some national tenants due to the fact that we lack some visibility,” Price said. “Of course, any success that we have in leasing brings a hundred jobs or more depending on the type of tenant we bring in.”
Toms River Center proposed a 100-foot tall sign measuring 16-by-20 square feet to be erected where it would be visible to drivers on the Parkway. The sign would be lighted, but traditional in nature, meaning no LED billboard-style technology or flashing graphics or slogans. The sign would be placed near the former bank branch.
With some retail stores closing due to online competition, “It’s a very competitive market” to sell space, said Price. “We have great space, great parking and a great community. We’re just missing that one key item.”
Price said the lack of tenants in the rear portion of the building has led to numerous problems. There was a theft of $300,000 worth of copper (by “professional” thieves), reports of vagrancy and even a few cases of squatters attempting to live in the vacant space.
“The lack of a tenant in there has been a problem for the community – vagrancy, vandalism, and if you leave a building unoccupied nature always takes it back,” said Nick Zorojew, executive director of the Toms River Business Improvement District. “We don’t want to see that. If you have that 60,000 square-foot space filled, that’s a reason for people to come to downtown Toms River.”
A small sticking point before the board rendered a decision on the sign – which would be the highest in town – was whether or not the words “Toms River” would be displayed on it. The applicants had only proposed the logos of the two rear tenants, but one board member, Robert Stone, insisted on the name appearing on the sign, at least in part to “give back” something to the township for approving the variance.
“’Toms River’ on the sign would be a great identification marker as people are driving down the Parkway,” he said.
After some initial reluctance, Toms River Center’s representatives agreed to place the name of the town or the name of the “Toms River Center” shopping plaza on the sign – likely below the logos of the tenants – bringing the debate to a close.
The board unanimously approved the tall sign, which will only be built once the spaces are leased.