CLARK, NJ — The sun had barely risen on Friday, Aug. 7, but the main parking lot at Clark Commons Mall was brimming to capacity for the very first time.
Local residents poked their heads inside newly opened stores, browsed the menus at debuting restaurants and explored the rest of the strip mall, joining the city in celebrating the grand opening of 27 new businesses.
The largest crowd had formed in front of Whole Foods, where hundreds of cart-holding shoppers — many of them from out of town — gathered in anticipation. All that was standing between them and the much-hyped opening of Whole Foods was a “bread-breaking” ceremony by Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso.
“I know this store is the envy of Union County. A lot of towns would love to have it. Clark has it, come and enjoy, shop at our center,” said Bonaccorso in a speech. “I hope one thing today, when you walk away from here and you look throughout this beautiful center, you see that a lot of thought was put into it. It’s not just some buildings with some stores and some parking lots. There’s beautiful landscaping, beautiful flowers, beautiful work on the buildings, and that’s what we’re so proud of.”
The visual value of Clark Commons Mall, which Bonaccorso said had been re-zoned from an outdated industrial center, was a talking point for many of the people who had come to the grand opening. The space is no longer an eyesore, said residents, and now it can generate revenue, which is a big win for Clark.
“We’ve been watching the development of this whole center, hardcore. We get excited about any little thing. When we saw they were starting footing, when they started chaining the roads, when they put in a left turn lane to accommodate traffic — we were super pumped about this for a long time,” said Nate Esquite, who was at the bread-breaking ceremony. “It was a little sore on the eye before, but now this looks awesome.”
Aside from the paved walkways and hand-laid stone buildings, which currently house big-name stores like Panera Bread, Chipotle and Five Below, as well as a bar section of Whole Foods, Clark Commons Mall also features a large gazebo, dozens of benches, a fountain and a pond.
There are no “Mom and Pop” type-shops, dry cleaners or nail salons, the report added, and the seven buildings face inward to give a greater sense of community. The end result is a mall that suits Clark, said residents.
“I was telling my friends the other day, it’s so weird driving by here at night-time and seeing all the lights. It used to be so dark, with the old factory here. It’s beautiful, I love it. They did a great job with the design of this place,” said Josh Chomite, a Clark resident. “It’s awesome, I live right around the corner and I’m stoked. I heard the Whole Foods peanut butter was great, the freshly ground and honest peanut butter, just got it for the first time. I like the fresh foods, and I like the local foods.”
Other residents, many of whom walked to Clark Commons Mall, were appreciative of the effect the mall could have on the local community, including the creation of jobs as a result of new businesses opening up.
“It’s definitely good for the community. We get more jobs. And it was only a mile away, so we just walked here. Who doesn’t want a Chipotle in walking distance?” said Kirsten Mikulak, who attended the grand opening with her husband, Steve. “We’re relatively new to Clark, we just bought a house, but it did help in the decision making process. Clark’s very up-and-coming.”
The stores will also help bring people from outside of town to Clark, added Mikulak, and in particular the Whole Foods, which has a large following because of its healthy image. The store has “reach,” added Mikulak, and plenty of people at the grand ceremony had come from miles away because of that.
“I’m excited about the Whole Foods, because I live in Roselle and my closest Whole Foods prior to this was in Millburn. It’s four-and-a-half miles of zigzagging through traffic and through the McDonald’s parking lot on the parkway, so it was a little bit of an inconvenience,” said Richard A. Jones. “I’m seeing all of the other stores they have here. I’m sure I’m going to be looking around other places, but I’m really really happy about Whole Foods here. I can’t wait to get in there and do some shopping.”
Clark Commons Mall has been in development for more than a year, according to Bonaccorso, and had received criticism from “haters.” But the response at the grand opening, including the hundreds of shoppers at the bread-breaking ceremony, was a good first step for the mall, he said.
“We believe this is the envy of central New Jersey right now, to see this kind of center. The response has been great — the traffic hasn’t been bad, yet for the haters out there — but for all of the stores out here, congratulations, good luck, be profitable,” said Bonaccorso. “For those of you who are here, and will come here, enjoy this.”