By STEVEN VIERA
EAST BRUNSWICK—Residents of the township have earned themselves a spot on the “nice list” this year for helping Santa Claus hold onto his home of 38 years.
Bill Kohlhepp, owner of the New Brunswick-based Coastal Evergreen Tree Farms, will return to the Brunswick Square Mall on Route 18 this holiday season to sell Christmas trees following a social media campaign that helped him overturn the mall’s initial decision not to renew his lease.
A lifelong resident of East Brunswick, Kohlhepp began selling Christmas trees 45 years ago as a part-time job while working as a police officer in the township, and today, he manages a full-time operation that includes owning a tree plantation in North Carolina and making appearances as Santa when he sells his trees.
He began selling trees at the mall 38 years ago. In March, however, Santa got bad news from WP Glimcher, the new owner of the Brunswick Square Mall.
“They didn’t allow any outside retail, and they were worried about visibility for the mall,” Kohlhepp said, which resulted in the mall deciding not to renew his lease to sell trees on the property.
Kohlhepp spoke with representatives of the mall, who suggested other locations at the mall and nearby properties for him to sell trees. The discussions “fell apart” about three weeks ago, he said, when the mall handed down its final decision not to renew his lease, and he felt “devastated” to lose the property where he had sold trees for nearly four decades.
Representatives of the Brunswick Square Mall or WP Glimcher did not respond to inquiries for comment.
In response, Kohlhepp’s wife, Diane, took to social media and called upon friends, family and former customers to rally behind Santa and protest the mall’s decision.
“It’s just amazing what social media can do,” he said. “From my guess, we had hundreds of people—our loyal customers [and] even the mayor contacted the mall and corporate office—in our support.”
The outpouring of support by people who had bought trees from Kohlhepp and threatened to boycott the mall managed to persuade WP Glimcher to reverse its decision and renew Coastal Evergreen’s lease for another year. Kohlhepp was grateful to both the mall for the change of heart and his customers for their loyalty, and he commented on the value that his trees add to the mall.
“They don’t just come and buy a tree,” he said. “They come, they shop, they eat—it’s a family tradition. And those people wouldn’t be coming anymore.”
The renewed lease only covers this year, so Kohlhepp may need to renegotiate with the mall or find a new home next year. But for now, he’s content.
“All’s well that ends well,” he said.
Contact Steven Viera at firstname.lastname@example.org.