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Visiting Cherry Hill The Racetrack and the Rat Pack

Every year, Money Magazine releases its extremely popular list of the top 100 places to live in the United States. This year, Cherry Hill, New Jersey made the list at number 47. Of course Bernie Platt, mayor of the 24 square-mile township, isn't surprised.

"It's truly a remarkable community to live in," says Platt, who has been mayor since 2002. "There are great people, it's family-oriented, and you couldn't find a better place to live, play and do business."

Platt is also quick to point out that Cherry Hill was voted the eighth safest place to live in the United States this year too. That may be why there's been such an influx of new residents to the township in recent years, and why new families, singles, and retirees keep picking Cherry Hill as the place they want to put down roots. Depending on where the incoming want to live however, they may be out of luck.

"More people are coming to live in Cherry Hill," says Platt, "but I've talked to the real estate salespeople and they tell me there is very little inventory."

Platt also says that there has never been a real downturn in Cherry Hill's fortunes as a community—and right now the commercial side of Cherry Hill is booming too.

Cherry Hill History

The Township of Cherry Hill lies five miles east of Philadelphia in the Delaware River Valley. According to The Encyclopedia of New Jersey,Cherry Hill was first settled by western Europeans in the 17th century. It was originally known as Waterford in the old Gloucester County, and then Delaware Township when Camden County was created. In 1961, the town's name was changed to Cherry Hill, named for a farm that occupied the area's highest point. Cherry Hill was known primarily for its farms, which provided produce for sale in Camden, Philadelphia, and to the Campbell Soup Company.

Cherry Hill is also home to the Barclay Farmstead, built in 1816 by a Quaker farmer, Joseph Thorn. According to the farmstead's website, (www.barclayfarmstead.org), "The farmhouse and surrounding 32-acre property offers visitors an opportunity to observe and participate in the agrarian lifestyle that once dominated the South Jersey landscape. Now listed on the National & New Jersey Registers of Historic Places, the Barclay Farmstead is owned and operated by Cherry Hill Township."

After the Great Depression, Cherry Hill almost became known as a 'resort town' as visitors came to check out the town's shopping and nightlife, and tourists flocked to the town's famous Garden State Park Racetrack.

When land speculator and developer Eugene Mori succeeded in building Garden State Park in 1942, he did so in the face of World War II rationing—and the racetrack became legendary and notorious all at once. Revelers traveled from nearby Philadelphia, New York City, and surrounding states to experience the thrill of a day at the races in once-sleepy Delaware Township. Soon, Mori's Cherry Hill Inn joined the Park as a regional destination point along with the adjacent Cherry Hill Shopping Center and the ultra-luxury Rickshaw Inn.

After the war, Cherry Hill's famous Latin Casino nightclub became home to the the Rat Pack—the legendary group of entertainers that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. By 1962, Cherry Hill was literally and figuratively 'on the map,' and Garden State Park was at the center of it all - even surviving a devastating fire in 1977.

As a result of its location at the crossroads of so many traffic arteries and proximity to shopping and entertainment centers, the residential population of Cherry Hill grew quickly during the postwar years. Today, the town boasts 70,000 residents—more than double what it had just 40 years ago—and the town has been home to a multitude of celebrities, including boxing legend Muhammad Ali, NBA star Mike Bibby, and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham.

Pros and Cons of New Development

Jean Meybohm was one of those who discovered Cherry Hill and its charms and relocated there in 1970. She's been a resident for 37 years, is done raising her family, and says she doesn't want to leave. If she has any criticisms of her town, she says Cherry Hill is still a wonderful area, but more tourists and residents undoubtedly do bring more traffic. "We're bound by Interstate 295, the New Jersey Turnpike and of course Route 70, which is a major road," she says.

The prime central location, though, is exactly why Meybohm enjoys living in the area. "I'm only 15 or 20 minutes from Philadelphia, and the area offers anything I want—the arts, museums—and the airports are less than a half-hour away," she says.

And more destinations are in the works as well. The 233 acres of Garden State Park are currently being remodeled into a mixed-use development center, equipped with shopping facilities like Wegman's Food Markets, The Cheesecake Factory, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, multi-family homes, a senior-only condominium complex, one million square feet of Class A office space, and more.

The New Jersey Transit rail station at the site provides transportation to Philadelphia and Atlantic City.As part of the estimated $500 million development plan, there will be an approximately one-million-square-foot corporate center and an upscale lifestyle center known as Towne Place at Garden State Park with retail shops and small restaurants, cafés, and offices.

The historic Cherry Hill Mall, owned by the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, is undergoing an expansion as well. In response to the commercial explosion in 2005 and the extensive relocation of businesses to Cherry Hill, Mayor Platt organized the Cherry Hill Business Partnership to identify and eliminate barriers for commercial progress. Led by an executive board of regional businesspeople, the partnership's focus is on meeting the needs of business in Cherry Hill with efficiency and personal care.

"Cherry Hill was always a prosperous town," explains Ari Messinger, the township's operations manager and business advocate, "but with the development of the race track, we knew it would get a lot of attention."

Messinger explains that the partnership assists businesses looking to increase space and in need of available locations. "It provides information on redevelopment zones and other incentives that the townships would offer," he says. "We're lucky to be graced with this problem. Because we are so developed, there is no open land or new construction. Since the infrastructure was already there, all that had to be done was a redeveloping of the area."

While Cherry Hill is attracting and retaining new businesses, the township continues its efforts to acquire and preserve more land for open space. Cherry Hill has established an open space fund for the township to purchase parcels of open space. "I'm buying as much as I can," says Platt.

The Cherry Hill Environmental Advisory Committee, a volunteer committee comprised of local residents working together with environmental expertise, prioritized parcels of land for the township's subsequent purchase.

Some of the main employers in the area are Lockheed Martin, Kennedy Health System, Gannett Satellite Network, Accu Staffing, Macy's, and Subaru of America, but Messinger explains "We're really an economy that depends on our shopping now."

Living in Cherry Hill

According to Cherry Hill's town website, "The township is experiencing marked growth in two particular housing sectors: market-rate luxury rental units and 'Active Adult' communities." In recent years, nearly 500 new luxury apartments have been constructed in the township, and in addition to that, the restoration of Cherry Hill Towers—a two-tower apartment complex—will introduce 433 new luxury units to the market early next year. Hundreds more new luxury rental units will be added with the completion of Park Place at Garden State Park.

According to Daren Sautter of Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors in Cherry Hill, the softening housing market is making itself felt in the community.

"It's been a slow market here since January," Sautter says. "Cherry Hill is not industry driven - there is no bubble here, no mass industry. What's hurting us is the media portraying this bubble when it's not true here. In the past, you would have five buyers per one house, now you have 15 houses for one buyer, so they can take their time. Sellers put their home on the markets hearing that the bubble was going to break and they wanted to benefit from that market—but we really don't have that kind of market here. So we aren't going to have the 15 percent price increases we've been having, but we are experiencing a three percent growth in prices."

Sautter says that the condo market in Cherry Hill—into which he includes the township's one co-op building as well—offers a broad range of prices, depending on the amenities and location in which an apartment-seeker is looking to buy. Prices for the 64 two-bedroom condo apartments currently on the market range from $47,000 to $319,000 with the average price coming in around $192,000. "That includes one- and one-and-a-half bath, new construction and existing homes," he says.

Sautter says that one-bedrooms range from around $95,000 to $150,000, with the average coming in somewhere in the $116,000 range. Of the roughly three dozen three-bedroom properties currently for sale in Cherry Hill, prices start at around $209,000 and top out around $359,000, with the average price about $276,000.

With all the new development in Cherry Hill, and the constant influx of tourists, shoppers, and new residents, the appeal of the township is different for different groups of people. While developers see opportunities for investment and growth, and visitors see shopping and other diversions, those who call Cherry Hill home, like Meybohm, see another side of their town. "Cherry Hill is just a pretty place,".

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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