Grant crucial to next phase of retail center

Summerhill Square builder says he is committed to bringing in quality retailers


EAST BRUNSWICK — The developer of Summerhill Square is one step closer to obtaining grant money critical to the construction of phase two of the shopping center.

The Township Council on Feb. 22 unanimously approved an ordinance recognizing the shopping center developer’s application for a state incentive grant. The vote came after a thorough explanation regarding the requisition by developer Robert Pagano.

“Acknowledging the application of this grant will not affect the township in any way,” Pagano said. “But it’s necessary for us to move the project forward. We need to work together. Projects are so difficult in these times that we need everyone on board.”

Pagano bought the property at Route 18 and Arthur Street in 2004 and broke ground in March 2008 on Summerhill Square, a 150,000-square-foot shopping center consisting of three buildings. The new mall replaces the old Meyer’s Shopping Center, whose storefronts had been mostly abandoned.

The anchor stores of the new mall are Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us, which were completed in late 2008. Considered a combination retailer, the two stores are connected internally.

Designed to have a Main Street-like appearance, the mall will have walkways with pavers, benches and streetlights, and will consist of about 20 stores when construction is complete. Though the complex has been partially completed, representatives from Summerhill Square recently appeared before the Planning Board in January seeking approval to alter the current site plan.

The developer proposed to eliminate eight parking stalls, among other adjustments that will allow space for outdoor seating if the developer chooses to entertain a restaurant tenant.

But Pagano said he cannot proceed with the shopping center until he receives approval for a recently implemented state grant. Part of a new incentive program, the grant comes from the sales revenue tax generated annually from the Summerhill Square property. The state stipulates that up to 75 percent of this revenue be given back to the developer at the end of each year for up to a 20-year time period.

“The money will be used to develop equity on the property,” Pagano said. “Using this grant can give us the ability to finance the second phase of the project.”

Pagano said that when he first pursued the grant, in November 2009, it was not written yet. He said he pushed representatives at the state Economic Development Authority (EDA) to get the program in place as soon as possible, and requested the earliest hearing the Township Council could schedule once the grant was completed.

During his commentary, Pagano noted a number of benefits to East Brunswick in continuing to build Summerhill Square, including the temporary creation of construction jobs, the creation of permanent jobs in the community, and numerous potential services that will be provided, as well as economic stimulation.

“It’s a nice project. We hit a very bumpy road, and were fortunate enough to get both Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us. Now we need to help other kinds of retailers come into the community,” he said. “But we’re committed to quality retailers and a quality project. We’re only at the front part of the curve and trying to get this done as quickly as possible.”

Township Business Administrator Jim White said approval by the state is critical for Summerhill Square to enter the next phase of the project. The township is merely recognizing the intentions of the developer, he said. Approval of the ordinance bears no cost to the town.

With the green light from the Township Council, Pagano can now seek approval from the EDA.

“This is a signal to the state that we’re supportive of the project,” Mayor David Stahl said in reference to the incentive grant. “The first phase was built a year ago, but now they seem to be moving on to the next stage. They made changes to the plan, and with this grant money, the developer believes the project will really get off the ground.”