Congoleum announced its factory on Sloan Avenue, across from the Hamilton train station, will close in Oct. 2014. (Staff photo by Rob Anthes.)

By Scott Morgan

Township makes wishlist for site of now-vacant Congoleum factory

After decades in operation, Congoleum Corporation has left Hamilton.

What this means for the township is opportunity and a lot of possibilities regarding what will become of the 1 million-square-foot factory on Sloan Avenue where the company manufactured various floor covering products since the heyday of Mercer County’s industrial power.

According to township officials, the company is in talks with a developer, but as of this writing, there’s no concrete word regarding who is buying the site near Interstate 295 beside American Metro Center.

Congoleum announced earlier this year that it would close the skeleton-crew-run location in the fall and lay off 65 workers in the process. Congoleum formally ceased operations at Sloan Avenue as of Oct. 1 and has moved its floor manufacturing fully to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, about an hour from the Hamilton factory.

The company had previously stated that it would offer 26 positions at Marcus Hook, which immediately sparked public outcry from the union workers who stated they don’t care to trade slightly higher wages for the promise of two extra hours of drive time a day.

The township’s role in what comes next for the site is rather limited, but officials have been working to court the right kind of developer there for some time. Township economic development director Michael Angarone said the township also been discouraging what they consider the wrong type of development—residential.

The effort to keep residential development away from the area near Congoleum stems from a political battle that goes back at least to the 2009 approval of the Crossings at Hamilton Station. The township council that year greenlighted a 636-home development less than a half-mile from the Congoleum site. It wasn’t well-received by some township residents.

Depending on whom you ask—the Crossings plan began under Gilmore’s Democrat administration and was approved by the Republican-heavy council under Mayor John Bencivengo—it’s the other party’s fault. But what is non-debatable is the fact that once the Crossings went up, any hopes for a transit village built around the American Metro facility went away. The state, according to Republican councilman Dennis Pone, would not designate the site as a mixed-use transit village development.

It’s a cause close to Pone, who has been a vocal critic of new residential development around Hamilton’s train station. He earned a seat on council in 2005, in part, due to his opposition of then-Mayor Glen Gilmore’s plans for a transit village around the train station, which borders Pone’s Cornell Heights neighborhood.

With Congoleum gone, there is once again the possibility of a retail or mixed-use project on the property. Whether it will be a transit village is as much a guess as anyone’s.

But while we may not know the future of the site, we do know its past and what the township would like to see there. What it was—and this plays big into how the site will be repurposed—is a decades-old chemical plant that made petroleum-based products for the home. This means that there is some environmental work to be done.

The good news, Angarone said, is that there should not be any heavy-duty remediation needed. Congoleum won’t be a Superfund site. It will, Angarone said, warrant mostly taking away truckloads of dirt and putting clean fill in its place.

As for what the township wants, Pone says a great idea would be a hotel and some restaurants, maybe a sports bar or other things for people to do. If done right, the site would be something akin to a town center, just not a town center in itself thanks to the site’s geography.

“It’s on the extreme northwest corner of the township,” Pone says. “My view is, a town center should be more in the center of town.”

A better spot for a town center—and for some choice redevelopment in town—would be at the municipal complex where the police station, library and recycling center are, Pone said. Hamilton, despite its 40-square-mile girth, is almost effectively built out, and room for new developments is pretty much gone. The township must look to smaller redevelopment projects and eyesores like the old Cost Cutters plaza on Whitehorse Road for its development plans.

So the possibilities of what could become of a million square feet have township officials hopeful yet nervous. And even if the Congoleum site doesn’t give way to a town center, the generalities of what goes into one—shops, restaurants, hangout spots—are the most welcomed ideas, Angarone said.

Angarone said the township has had numerous meetings with Congoleum about what would be the best type of development at the site. Officials, he said, have done their best to point the company toward the types of developers who could turn the location into something of a destination. But Congoleum officials, who did not return the Hamilton Post’s calls for comment, have the final say.

Without a doubt, a hotel, whether it has a conference center or not, would be a good bet, Angarone said given the site’s proximity to the train station, the businesses at American Metro Park, and the township’s largest tourist attraction, Grounds For Sculpture.

The Grounds boasts 155,000 visitors a year, and most, Angarone said, are not local. That’s fine for the Grounds, but when the visitors either drive back home or out of town to stay overnight in a hotel, Hamilton loses the potential dollars those visitors would spend on lodging, food and nightlife.

Still, what Hamilton wants and what it can do about it are two different things. Angarone said the government has done what it can to make what he calls “a very important site for the town” a good development for Hamilton—set up flex zoning options, discourage residential development that Hamilton’s infrastructure couldn’t support well, and point Congoleum toward developers with sound vision plans—a good development for Hamilton. Officials have met with the state Economic Development Authority as well, to identify ideal uses for the site.

As for the building itself, the longstanding brick colossus stands a good chance of being torn down. Which leaves more of a philosophical question: will it be missed?

“I don’t know that it’ll be missed, really,” Pone said.

The plant, once the employer of hundreds, has been running on a very lean crew for years. And though the closing will be tough on the 65 remaining workers who no longer have a job there, Congoleum’s departure will not deal a blow to the township the way the exodus of Trenton’s one-time industrial powerhouses mortally wounded the capital city when they took off for cheaper climes in the 1950s and ’60s.

Pone, however, does give the company credit where it’s due.

“We’ve never had a problem with them,” he said. “They’ve always been a good neighbor. But if something great comes in there, someplace where people can work? I don’t know that it’ll be missed.”