The Halloween Economy

HalloweenThe lawn signs have been gone for years now. In 2005, you saw them everywhere, little white placards bearing the words “Middletown Town Center” canceled out by one of those circle-and-slash null signs.

They were protest signs, forked into the front yards of people who were opposed to the construction of a town center that would include up to 750,000 square feet of retail space, 250,000 square feet of office space, 4500 parking spaces, and 220 townhouses and apartments in the last undeveloped acres of Middletown, NJ.

Some people opposed the plan because they saw it as an eyesore and a squandering of valuable open space. Others believed it would increase traffic congestion on Route 35, or would attract too many new residents and commuters whose appetite for new schools and services would drive up property taxes. Sometimes it seemed that the only people in favor of the development were the Azzolinas, the family that owned the land on which it would be built.

In 2003 and again in 2006, the Middletown Planning Board sided against the Azzolinas and changed the zoning of the land to block the Town Center development. The Azzolinas fought back over a period of several years marked by lawsuits and countersuits, contentious town hall meetings, and a hotly contested local election that saw Joseph Azzolina deposed as Assemblyman for New Jersey’s 13th legislative district. Finally, earlier this year, the dispute was settled when the Appellate Division of State Superior Court issued in favor of the Azzolinas, Mountain Hill LLC, and the Town Center project. Joe Azzolina could sell, and license, and develop to his heart’s content.

By the time the decision was handed down, however, hardly anyone cared anymore. No one’s hauling their protest signs from the garage, dusting them off, and replanting them in the yard because, in the interim, a funny thing happened. While appellate courts were overruling trial courts and local politicians were zoning and re-zoning, New Jersey’s economy vanished.

With unemployment soaring and consumer credit frozen, no one’s buying $16.50 tins of “gourmet” doggy biscuits and Sharper Image Quad Action Percussion Massagers anymore. The malls in central New Jersey are an excellent place to find papered over windows, fading “Retail Space for Rent” signs, and acres of empty parking spaces. You can’t drive down Route 35 without seeing gaggles of terminally underemployed day laborers standing by the roadside, dressed as clowns or pirates, waving big “Going Out Of Business! Everything Must Go!” signs.

Ironically, the Middletown Town Center plan now calls for 1.4 million square feet of retail space in its present incarnation, nearly double its original size. You can still go to Azzolina’s pro-development website, and read all about the benefits of “smart growth.” Reading the site’s pie-in-the-sky, funny-money baloney about jobs and tax revenues is like taking a fun little mental vacation back to a simpler, dumber time when everybody knew “somebody” who was making a fortune flipping houses or stocks or pork-belly futures, and Al Gore was promising to put the “national budget surplus” into a “lock box.”

If Joe Azzolina were to see his development boondoggle come true today, he’d be looking at 1.4 million square feet of Halloween Costume Discount Store. Because that’s all we have left in our Halloween Economy. You see them them everywhere in Middletown, in the old Kiddie Gyms and Linens N Things, the closed-down mattress stores and Rite-Aids. Grab-and-go ghost enterprises that pay temporary workers next to nothing and sell merchandise out of boxes on the floor until the boxes are empty, then disappear.

The jobs are gone, the retail spaces are empty, the go-go ’00s are over, and who knew we were going to need so many Halloween costumes?

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