Shuttered businesses are long-standing eyesores along this NJ highway
Along a nearly 15-mile stretch of this heavily-traveled span of Route 202, from Ringoes to Branchburg, about a dozen abandoned, standalone buildings remain as empty relics of booming independent businesses past.
The first signals of the apparent downturn start slightly north of 202's intersection with Old York Road in Ringoes, at which a Speedway station — a sign of the times, having rebranded from Hess over the last several years — still operates even though an adjacent Dunkin' Donuts convenience store has been shut down.
Further up the road is the former showroom of Olde York Road Furniture, which shut its doors in 2014 and moved a couple of miles north into a strip mall that also houses a Sears and a Retro Fitness. But the relocation, during which the store was renamed Old York Furniture, does not seem to have worked: A website is still functional and there is still a sign for the store on the plaza's marquee, but its main phone line has been disconnected.
For John Maddocks, vice president of economic development for the Somerset County Business Partnership, the failures of some of these smaller businesses reflect a change in consumer tastes. The economics of the region are "pretty strong," but much of that is due to the brand names that have moved into what used to be a very rural region.
"It had houses along it. It had single-family houses on smaller lots," he said. "They existed up and down the corridor, and they exist to this day."
Specifically, Maddocks cited the old RCA/Harris semiconductor campus in Bridgewater as one example of corporate sprawl. Since about the turn of the millennium, travelers have known it as the Bridgewater Towne Center, now home to a Wegman's among other shops and restaurants.
Bridgewater's township council has also recently heard plans for a Wawa to be built in that area, joining one further down 202 in Neshanic Station and one just north of the Flemington Circle on Route 31.
The independently-owned Cinema Plaza in Raritan Township, which at the time of its 2011 closure was Hunterdon County's last movie theater, is now the site of a CVS, PNC Bank, and Starbucks. But in the same neighborhood, the Hunterdon Scuba Center building sits in disrepair.
The Chute Shop building, also in Flemington, was the site of a trespassing arrest as far back as 2011, and rumors of redevelopment have swirled for years around the nearby, 22-acre U.S. Bronze Powders plant, as well as The Village Inn across the highway, where overgrowth has started to invade the parking lot and the buildings themselves.
"What makes those vacant properties more pronounced is the new investment that has occurred along the corridor," Maddocks said. "When you have a brand new development next to a vacant lot, the vacant lot appears a lot more prominent."
He said despite those eyesores that dot the landscape in both Somerset and Hunterdon counties, data he reviewed shows that lot vacancy rates are declining and rental rates seem to be rising.
"The vacancy rate along the corridor was only somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 11 percent, compared to 17 to 18 percent countywide," Maddocks said.
Still, it's not just independent business owners who've felt the pinch. A closed Citibank branch on the southbound side, at the border of Flemington with Raritan Township, has lain dormant for a number of years.
And just last month, only two lots down from that, the local Philly Pretzel Factory closed its doors. The franchisee of that location still responds to comments and messages left on the business' Facebook page, but declined further comment to New Jersey 101.5.
In the Neshanic Station section of Branchburg, a former Getty station is under supervision by the state Department of Environmental Protection, with any prospective sale or even rental of that property likely delayed until an investigation and cleanup are complete. Not far north, one of the most recent closures is the Quick Stop deli, which according to a sign on the front door closed its doors for good last Nov. 16.
The Sunset Motel on 202 North in Branchburg is up and running, but the adjacent Sunset Pancake House has been long closed, its parking lot barricaded and inaccessible from the highway. When reached for comment, a motel employee could not say whether the two buildings were jointly owned, as had been the case decades ago.
Maddocks said that the size of some lots may be prohibitive for buyers. They're forced to "assemble" numerous properties, instead of just one independent one, and opening a group of businesses together can bring significant lag time due to the multi-tiered application process. He did find one recent land transaction of about three to four acres in the Bridgewater area, which could be waiting on such an application to move forward.
The Somerset County Planning Board did look into the changing face of business on 202 in a past study, but a copy of that was not available at press time.
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