In early March, Catholic Charities and its partners gathered to celebrate a groundbreaking at the Cherry Hill Town Center – the kick-off to a multi-phase project that will renovate the building’s facade, welcome the neighborhood’s first bank, and introduce an open marketplace to support local entrepreneurs. Three weeks later, Maryland issued a stay-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing activity in many sectors to a screeching halt across the state.

But Jason Sutton, senior property manager for the project, said work at the Town Center has continued almost on pace. Some permitting delays caused by the coronavirus have pushed the schedule back by about a month – construction of the Chase Bank branch will now finish in late August, and the facade improvements in September.

“They’re doing great,” Sutton said of the progress. “And it’s going to reinforce this center as the life pulse of Cherry Hill, and in some ways, even of Greater Cherry Hill.”

The center houses a mix of services – the local branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a WIC office (providing supplemental nutrition assistance for women, infants, and children) run by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a Family Dollar store, a laundromat, a barber shop. Several tenants were forced to close operations temporarily or for longer durations in response to COVID-19, but the location remains a hub for the community and will grow as the renovations continue.

At the root of the work: justice

The Cherry Hill neighborhood was originally designed and built for African American servicemen returning home from World War II. But the disinvestment and isolation that followed over the next several decades manifested in obvious ways – including the lack of basic community amenities, such as a bank or grocery store.

Rex Foster, Catholic Charities’ director of community engagement, said the Town Center upgrades are more than a construction project.

“It’s about social and economic justice,” he said, describing vital partnerships with neighborhood partners and groups that are helping to shape and drive the initiative. “That’s really at the root of a lot of the work we’re doing there.”

In recent years, Cherry Hill has been the site of a renovated elementary/middle school and a renovated Judy Center for early learning opportunities (where Catholic Charities operates a Head Start program). Developers are now also considering new housing options.

“I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic to say it’s a renaissance of sorts,” Sutton said of the neighborhood progress, adding that the response to the renderings of the new Town Center has been “overwhelmingly favorable.”

As a next step in the project, Catholic Charities will help develop a large, currently vacant space into a community marketplace. The 5,000-square foot area will serve as home to pop-up stalls that allow local entrepreneurs to launch small businesses. Working with partners at the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden, Catholic Charities also hopes the space will host food-related programs – including cooking and nutrition classes, or the distribution of fresh produce – to support a neighborhood that has long sought more outlets to buy healthy foods.

“Our hope is that it provides a lot of opportunity,” Foster said of the overall project. “Economic opportunity is almost always at the top of list of things that people in the neighborhood say that they want or need. Whether it’s through jobs or … skills-based training, or support for an entrepreneurial venture. These are the kinds of things we want to be able to host in the space, and that really came directly from the residents of Cherry Hill.”

Before the pandemic, the team working on the Town Center was planning for a major ribbon-cutting event to draw attention to the progress and the leasing opportunities it engenders.

“Obviously, all of that is on pause,” Sutton said, adding that Catholic Charities and its Cherry Hill partners will find creative ways to celebrate the ongoing work.