The former Thriftway location at Foxmoor Shopping Center, shown here in December 2015, has been vacant for most of the decade. Township officials said they have hope a supermarket will come to Foxmoor now that Penmark has purchased the plaza. (File photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Finally, a new owner for Foxmoor Shopping Center.

Through an online auction on Aug. 1, Penmark Management Company Inc. purchased the center for $7.5 million. The sale becomes official and permanent by September. Penmark has promised to honor all existing leases.

Township officials hope, through this change in leadership, Foxmoor Shopping Center has the opportunity to once again become the small business hub of Robbinsville.

From July 30 to August 1, through a private online auction platform, U.S. Bank sold the Foxmoor Shopping Center property to Penmark for $7.5 million, under the appraised value of $13.1 million. The bidding started at $2.5 million, and though the names of bidders were not revealed, the auction itself was quite active.

Penmark, the owners of Suburban Square Shopping Center on Scotch Road in Ewing, has a history of improving and revitalizing shopping malls. Penmark purchased the Coventry Mall in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in April 2016, and increased the occupancy rate from 65 percent to 89 percent in two years. A Robbinsville Township release noted that foot traffic at Coventry Mall increased with more food vendors and following much-needed repairs to the complex.

Penmark declined to comment on the Foxmoor Shopping Center purchase since the deal was not finalized by press time.

But Robbinsville Director of Community Development Hal English and other township officials have high hopes for the new ownership. English emphasized the importance of opening a food store, especially since so many Robbinsville residents now have to go out of town for grocery shopping after Thriftway closed in 2011.

“Penmark owns many malls and shopping centers, and they have connections and contracts with many kids of retail and food establishments, so they seem quite confident they can bring a food store to Foxmoor,” he said.

Penmark has already begun to hold meetings and work closely with the township to create plans to redevelop the plaza. Because Foxmoor is a designated area in need of redevelopment, this allows Penmark and the township to engage in creative zoning and bring in tenants that are generally not allowed, such as a microbrewery.

Furthermore, along with renovating the facade and landscaping of the shopping center, the township will work with Penmark to request the state Department of Transportation for a right-in right-out lane from the shopping center to Route 33, which would provide easier access to the mall.

Through revitalizing Foxmoor Shopping Center, English believes Robbinsville can take another step towards supporting the community of small businesses.

Foxmoor Shopping Center, built in 1986, has faced tough times in the past decade, leading to a 41 percent vacancy rate and declining sales for the business that chose to stay. Before 2015, the center was owned by Pettinaro Management LLC from Delaware, whom English described as “absent.”

Once the land went into bankruptcy, Pettinaro sold the property to the U.S. Bank National Association for $100, with the bank assuming the $13.1 million in debt. Since then, U.S. Bank hired property manager Colliers International for minimal maintenance. However, English said Colliers did not focus on improving or even properly maintaining the 19-acre property, leading to potholes in the parking lot and general disarray.

“Colliers was tasked with simple maintenance,” English said. “If there was a leak in the roof, (Colliers) would plug the leak, not get a new roof.”

Colliers was also tasked with leasing, but faced difficulty because every lease and line-item had to be approved by the bankruptcy court, further complicating the process of negotiating a lease.

Combining the difficulty of negotiating leases with the declining appeal of the center, many tenants began to leave the complex, including Thriftway Market, Rite-Aid, Everson’s Karate and several restaurants. And while there was tenant interest, the lease process made it difficult to replace leaving businesses.

“We have actually had interest in the shopping center, but several tenants have wanted to come in and couldn’t,” English said. “They couldn’t get a lease negotiated because it was between the bank, the leasing company, and the bankruptcy court.”

Since English entered his current role a year and a half ago, he learned quickly that revitalizing Foxmoor has been a top concern for township officials.

“When I came on board, the mayor and council told me that [Foxmoor Shopping Center] was their No. 1 concern,” English said. “So I went to work on it, and got the bank to meet with us. At the meeting, the mayor and council were not shy in telling the bank how upset we were about the shopping center.”

The mayor and council expressed their frustrations through the threat of condemnation, which was a possibility since the Robbinsville Planning Board designated Foxmoor Shopping Center as an area in need of redevelopment in August 2016.

“They basically told the bank that either they sell it, fix it up, and lease it, or we we will condemn it and then take it,” English said. “That’s when the bank decided to cut their losses and put it out to auction.”

With the auction complete and a new permanent owner in place, the township now can broaden its top-level priority beyond Foxmoor Shopping Center. Along with revitalizing Foxmoor, the current Master Plan renewal process has the township considering keeping commercial development towards Route 130 and perhaps even courting a new retirement home to Robbinsville.