The exterior of the Lawrence Shopping Center has been undergoing renovations since last summer. A number of new businesses have been added to the center this year. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

The Lawrence Shopping Center has a new look, but things are changing inside the vacant storefronts, too.

Township manager Kevin Nerwinski confirmed last month that an LA Fitness gym will fill the long-empty space left by a former furniture store. The township is hoping for a February 2020 opening, and Nerwinski expects the vacant building to be fully torn down within the next two months.

“LA Fitness is the type of organization that does a lot of market research into where they place their gyms,” Nerwinski said. “This location seems to be a no-brainer for them. They have not closed a single location. They build, and they’re stayers.”

Nerwinski said some of the conclusions the company drew from that research include the site’s visibility from Route 1, the vision of current shopping center owners JJ Operating Real Estate Investments and the township’s proximity to both Philadelphia and New York.

Nerwinski said the reaction of some residents has been along the lines of “If Retro Fitness didn’t work out, why would this gym?” but he maintains that the two fitness centers are two different entities. Members, he said, can expect a pool, community activities and children’s programs.

“It’s going to bring hundreds of people daily to the shopping center,” Nerwinski said of the gym. “It’s a game changer.”

JJ Operating is the shopping center’s third owner in six years. Last year, the company fulfilled its pledge to invest $5 million into capital improvements to the property, starting with facade renovations that are nearing completion.

Nerwinski said that was one of the first things the developer sought on to improve. It looked outdated, they said, and the next step is to install a larger, more prominent sign.

“The companies that were overseeing [the shopping center] were managers who had no motivation for profit,” Nerwinski said. “They were just managing it. That happened for years, and that’s an awful thing for a town to have there because there’s no incentive to improve. They’re just basically hanging on. When this new owner took over less than two years ago, they are a company that specializes in revitalizing ailing shopping centers. They’ve been around for over 50 years, and when they buy a location, they never sell it. They hold onto it. They’re just accumulating assets which is a really going thing for a community because it means they’re not there to flip.”

Other recent additions include a hatchet-throwing studio, Plato’s Closet, and a yet-to-be named grocery store to fill the vacant spot left by Acme. Rumors persist the tenant will be Lidl, a German discount grocery chain similar to Aldi. Nerwinski could not say either way whether or not Lidl would occupy that space, but he says the news should be released soon.

“A lot of people who want the traditional food store are not going to be happy, but I think the convenience factor will sway them,” he said. “Some people like new. Other people don’t like new. But I think what’s going to go in there, people are going to be happy with in the end…Those kind of stores like Lidl, they’re no-frills, but their buying power is so enormous that you get good quality stuff for less money.”

Once LA Fitness and the unnamed grocery store open, Nerwinski expects the many other smaller storefronts to fill up.

Other newer businesses, like Cafe du Pain bakery, are already drawing in shoppers.

“It’s really important for residents, instead of complaining about the shopping center and how it’s vacant, if you have a store, go support your local shops,” Nerwinski said. “I think the town is doing that. You have to have a good product. It’s kind of neat to see everyone going [into the bakery] to support that.”

Part of the land surrounding the shopping center near Texas Avenue has been identified as a potential space for affordable housing, which Nerwinski said is generating interest among developers. He thinks a housing development could block the “awful” back view of the shopping center.

“I’ve been connected to this town for my entire life,” Nerwinski said. “That shopping center for a lot of longtime Lawrence residents, seeing it in the state that it’s been in, has been kind of depressing. It’s like a symbol of maybe the town is sick in some way. I think for the most part, the residents see it rising from the ashes.”