CAMDEN, NJ — The large barn-style gate of the Camden Arts Yard rests slightly ajar, allowing a sliver of a view into the lot.

Caught off guard by blaring music, passersby are tempted to pause in their trip along Market Street with a quick peek at the source.

Many couldn’t resist stopping to look around in recent weeks leading to Monday's official opening of the new downtown beer garden, owner Damon Pennington said.

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“We have literally had judges, attorneys, clerks come down here and stop by. People asking, 'Are you open yet?'" said Pennington, president of ATS Group, LLC. "We've had people park across the street, check in. Especially since we started playing the music. People had heard about us too on Instagram and Facebook."

After nearly 12 months of planning, Pennington aimed for the 317 Market St. gallery to offer a place to hang out for everyone, with unique elements catching the eye at every turn. It's fair to say he succeeded.

One step inside the courtyard delivers the payoff to early curiosity. A tall, winding sculpture directly front and center acts as a sort-of nod toward what's to come.

For Pennington, the earliest idea for the lot was finding a way to incorporate shipping containers, something he noted from visiting other cities. 

A carved-out section of the containers creates a cove over some of the seating area, which altogether holds 54 people. Others were designed to house a miniature kitchen, and in the back, a live-music stage fitted with a hydraulic system.

Front barriers of the stage can fold down for DJ and musician performances, and back up when a playlist is providing the soundtrack through the overhead speakers. Pennington said the music in some form doesn't stop once it comes on at 10:30 or 11 a.m.

Specialty drinks, a selection of beers, and wine, meanwhile, are served out of a makeshift horse trailer-turned bar.

But the space would not be complete without one more prize: a Chris-Craft boat, parked on a bed of stones. The boat, of the handmade style is no longer available, presents a photo-op seating area for groups. There's even a naming ceremony planned in June.

"I call it the Seven Wonders of South Jersey," Pennington said of the repurposed landmarks.

Bits of the city's history were injected into the cocktails list. Some of the original creations include Whitman's Muse, a nod to Walt Whitman; 753 Walnut Street, the home of Martin Luther King Jr.; and Talking Machine, which refers to the record company manufacturer founded in 1901.

Complementing the beverages is a menu fit for both health nuts and food junkies alike — from loaded hot dogs to twists on classic bites — designed by the venue's head chef Aaron McCargo Jr., a Camden native and Food Network host.

“The goal is we want people walking around Camden at lunchtime. We don't want people to feel like they have to sit around in a cafeteria," Pennington said. "I don't mind if people are sitting here reading books. I just want people to experience something outside of their jobs."

The arts yard is hard to miss from any approaching angle. City goers can see the support poles and strings of lights above the lot connecting the two neighboring buildings. Beyond the back fence sits a Rutgers-Camden dorm that looks directly down into the lot.

Art works will plaster the wall of the 315 Market St. building on the left, which Pennington also owns and hopes to develop into a restaurant.

Pennington said that while the arts yard will certainly be a bit of "culture shock" for Camden, he's excited for the potential.

"This is something completely different that we want people to enjoy," he said. "I want everyone to be able to come together. I want everyone to feel like this is the party."

There are plans to have live exhibits, performances, and other events going on at the yard as much as possible, Pennington said. Scheduling will come from a mix of recruiting artists as well as hoping they reach out to him.

The arts yard employs about 30 people in full- and part-time positions, and Pennington plans to bring on about 25 more people.

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