After recent business declines in its Main Street area, Gloucester Township is now poised for a renaissance with plans to open a new arts district in downtown Blackwood.
The township will celebrate a new era of economic development and officially launch the arts district with an inaugural food and craft beer festival from 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9, at 15 South Black Horse Pike in downtown Blackwood.
If you look fast that day, you may be able to catch Brian Hammell in action, organizing an army of volunteers to check IDs, hand out bracelets, monitor activities, keep the streets clean, and remove trash from bins, amongst other duties.
But the Gloucester Township resident is more than just a helpful volunteer. Without the expertise and guidance of Hammell, a Ph.D. student in public affairs at Rutgers University–Camden, the festival – and more importantly, the burgeoning arts district – would never have been possible.
The idea for an arts district arose out of a Ph.D. practicum – an applied research course treated like a student consultancy – that Hammell completed with the Gloucester Township Economic Development Corporation under the tutelage of Lori Minnite, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers–Camden.
“Brian is making a major impact,” says Minnite. “His meticulous work and dedication is a testament to our students’ abilities to work successfully with local government officials and community members to contribute to efforts addressing community needs.”
As Hammell recalls, it all started with a sign – literally. He was walking in downtown Blackwood when he noticed a sign saying to contact the local economic development agency for redevelopment opportunities. While he didn’t plan to open a business, he knew that he could help.
“Living in Blackwood, I could see the abandoned properties and the buildings in disrepair,” says Hammell, who earned an MPA at Rutgers–Camden in 2014. “The streetscape had recently been redone, but there were no feet on the ground, no retail destinations for visitors. I saw the potential in the downtown area, if only we could get people out of their cars and walking around.”
Shortly thereafter, Hammell met with members of the Gloucester Township Economic Development Corporation and listened to their issues and interest in dealing with declining business in the area. He then conducted research and looked at the socioeconomic profile of Gloucester Township, resulting in his proposal to develop an arts district as part of a downtown redevelopment initiative.
“There had already been discussions on creating a new black box theater, so I thought there was a great opportunity to expand on this art presence,” says Hammell, a native of nearby Lindenwold who attended Lindenwold High School. “I knew it could work. Other towns have done this successfully, such as Millville with the Glasstown Arts District.”
Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer and members of the Gloucester Township Council were so impressed with Hammell’s work and expertise that they quickly got on board with the arts district plan.
“Brian provided the township with a tremendous amount of information and knowledge that will lead to future economic development,” says Mayer.
The Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. student ended up writing the resolution for the town council to establish the arts district and it passed unanimously about a week later in mid-July.
One of Hammell’s first ideas is to adorn the downtown area with murals and graffiti art as a way to get people to stop and take a look. He also proposes opening another restaurant or craft brewery, noting the great potential to repurpose the site of the former bank at the intersection of Black Horse Pike and Church Street, an impressive-looking building with large stone walls.
As Gloucester Township gets a boost, so has Hammell’s career. Although still a Ph.D. student, he was offered and accepted a position serving as a consultant with Triad Associates, a community development firm based in Vineland, which has been working with Gloucester Township on its redevelopment efforts.
Hammell credits his education in Rutgers–Camden’s MPA program for teaching him how to develop metrics and create a strategic plan, and, subsequently, the Ph.D. program in public affairs for showing him how to put the plan into action.
“The doctoral program has taught me how you develop a community,” says Hammell, a master sergeant in the U.S. National Guard who formerly served as an intelligence analyst at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. “It’s more than just throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
Those interested in volunteering for the Gloucester Township Food and Craft Beer Festival should contact Hammell at firstname.lastname@example.org.