Seven Mile Times

Holiday 2018

Big-Picture Thinker

Stone Harbor Honors Clint Bunting for
Reviving Harbor Square

By Dave Bontempo

Clint Bunting achieved an unlikely feat over the last five years: He upgraded Stone Harbor.

 

How does that happen in one of the nation’s richest municipalities? Bunting did it with a transformational purchase and remodeling of the mall and movie theater on 96th Street. The move bolstered the town center, brought winter visitors, and enhanced options for local residents.

 

The Bunting Effect was cited in September by the Stone Harbor Property Owners Association, which named him its 2018 Citizen of the Year. The award honors contributors to Stone Harbor via business operations, community involvement, or maintaining a link between property owners and government officials. Bunting is a rarity, garnering this distinction without owning a home here. His contribution glistens during the festive, bustling holiday season and during the winter months, as a magnet to attract visitors.

 

“For Stone Harbor residents, it is pretty impossible to improve the quality of their life, but I think that’s something we’ve been able to accomplish,” laughs Bunting, a Delaware native who has invested roughly $11 million here.

 

“I am thrilled and humbled by this award. Stone Harbor is a community that does it right. The citizens’ care and love for the town is remarkable. The government works hard. You see that employees of the government are not there just for a job. They have pride in the borough. When I was 20 years old, some 30 years ago, I fell in love with Stone Harbor. This is a place in which the people go the extra mile.”

 

So has he. Bunting’s high-profile rollout of Harbor Square Theatre became a hit in 2016. There are three theaters with roughly 100 seats apiece and another with 250. Cushy seats, wider aisles, neon lighting, a large digital screen, burgers and a bar signify the new entertainment experience. With first-run movies quickly flipping to outlets like Netflix, their theater realm has dwindled and ought to be memorable, Bunting reasons. Harbor Square Theatre followed his purchase of The Walk at Harbor Square mall in 2013. The mall and theater offer foot traffic for each other.

 

“It’s always good to get properties next to you,” Bunting says. “If you change something that has been run down and make it look good, it increases the value of everything around it.”

 

Bunting, the son of retired Delaware state senator George Bunting, forged an early bond with Stone Harbor. His connection emerged via his friendship with local resident Rob Hicks, whom he met at the College of William and Mary. They shared a love for surfing and football. (Hicks would go on to become a community force here as race director of the Stone Harbor Triathlon). The connection to Stone Harbor grew wings, as Bunting’s wife Tia and his two children spend large chunks of time here in the summer.

 

Brett Denafo accepts the Citizen of the Year award on behalf of Clint Bunting from SHPOA President Bob Charamella.

 

On a parallel plane, Bunting invested about $500 in a real-estate seminar for buying properties with no money down several years back. The education continued when he obtained a summer business in Delaware that specialized in funnel cakes.

 

“I realized I had to work hard with it and pay a landlord,” he recalls. “It seemed like I was doing all the work, the landlord made all the money, and I didn’t make any until mid-August [two weeks before the end of the season].”

 

Why pay the landlord? Be the landlord was this lesson. Bunting later obtained investors, thrived in commercial real estate, maintained his friendships in Seven Mile Beach and twice attempted to buy businesses here, unsuccessfully.

 

But there would never be strike three. The aftermath of Sandy brought him a chance to purchase The Walk at Harbor Square. It contained four restaurants, a bakery, smoothie store, florist, bookstore and a paint store, among other businesses. Later, the theater opportunity emerged. He acquired it from Bruce Frank, whose family runs theaters throughout South Jersey. Scott Kaufman and Brett Denafo, the owner of the nearby 96th Street Pub and Grill, partnered with him.

 

Harbor Square has created a buzz for Stone Harbor and a destination during the winter months.

 

“I used to come over here in January and February and the area around the movie theater was empty,” Bunting recalls. “Now it is vibrant all year-round. On Fridays and Saturdays, the parking spaces are filled.

 

“It is very important to have a thriving downtown commercial district. All across the spectrum, young and old, you want to have something that is interesting to people and provide a safe, clean environment. We need to bring people in. The store owners on 96th Street have now improved their businesses.”

 

Bunting continues thinking big. A similar project has emerged in Ventnor, where another movie theater will be upgraded and is scheduled to launch next year.  Bunting is leading the way. Denafo and Kaufman will join him.

 

Denafo hails Bunting’s impact on the borough.

 

“This mall was dying,” Denafo recalls. “If Clint didn’t buy it, I was out of here. There was water leaking everywhere, this place was in bad shape. Then he comes in, buys the mall, and here he is, right away, painting and putting up lights. I said, ‘This guy is interested.’

 

“Now the mall is completely rented. It’s thriving. I think it’s quite fitting for Clint to receive the [SHPOA] award.  If you asked anybody in the city, he has helped everybody out, whether that’s the residential end or the commercial end.

 

“A lot of landlords will make their money and that’s the end of it, but not him. He wants to see us all succeed.”

 

With the coming of the Christmas season, one is reminded that it is better to give than receive. The SHPOA honor means Bunting can do both.

Clint Bunting (left) helps cut the ribbon during the Harbor Square Theatre opening in 2016.

Clint Bunting with his wife Tia and children Gray and Kinzie.

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