“This city is on to something.”
President Barack Obama said that of Camden nearly five years ago. Speaking in the city, at the time often considered the poorest in the state and one with the highest rates of crime nationwide, Obama called Camden “a symbol of promise for the nation.”
His May 2015 address in the city centered on the improvements which he said were apparent on issues like public safety and K-12 education. The city had, after all, disbanded and then completely revamped its policing services just two years earlier.
“Violent crime is down… murder is down … open-air drug markets have been cut by 65 percent. The response for 911 calls is down from one hour to just five minutes,” the president added, his speech frequently punctuated by applause and cheers from the crowd. “And perhaps most significant is that the police and residents are building trust.”
The city’s population at the time was over 70,000, still half of its 1950 peak of 124,000 before the industrial exodus began. New Jersey at the time was still in the early stages of two ambitious incentive programs: the Grow New Jersey corporate tax breaks and the Economic Redevelopment and Growth gap financing program. Both were created in their most recent form following the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, with an eye toward redeveloping Camden.
Nearly $2 billion was awarded for companies to move into Camden, some came from out of state, others relocated from different New Jersey towns. Requirements for those incentives were much looser than for other locales around the state and the awards far more lucrative for businesses, allowing for hundreds of millions of dollars in development, especially along the waterfront.
Introduction: What’s at stake in the debate over Camden’s past and future
But in the years since, the now-expired programs are the subjects of criticism by state officials, media outlets and watchdog groups. City activists argue that the development centered on the waterfront and was a classic case of gentrification, and that most residents saw little, if any, economic benefit.
A task force that Gov. Phil Murphy put together to investigate the incentives has honed in on Camden in the past year, studying how those tax breaks were awarded and whether they were awarded to benefit specific, politically connected businesses.
Progressive advocacy groups that have supported much of the governor’s agenda have questioned whether the city has seen any benefit as a result of the incentives.
Local and state officials have pushed back against criticism of the tax breaks and as well as the ire directed at the programs themselves. They argue that the tax breaks paved the way for an otherwise unthinkable start to economic prosperity.
Former Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Democrat, in fact, removed Camden from the list of the equivalent of the Garden State Growth Zones in an incentive proposal he fashioned, meaning that many of the tax break bonuses for companies that move to New Jersey’s poorest cities would no longer go to businesses moving to Camden.
“It takes years and years and years of development, of progress … it takes a generation,” Lesniak told NJBIZ. “But you have to start and progress is being made.
Lesniak, who was one of the lawmakers who crafted the original Economic Opportunity Act, decried those who believe “that you can wave a magic wand and turn around the most crime-ridden, most poor city in a matter of years.” The city’s decline was decades in the making, he argued, and so too should be its revival.
Observers removed from the political controversies surrounding Camden tend to take more nuanced views of the recent developments. “I think, like any story, there’s been a mixed story,” said Stephen Danley, an associate professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers-Camden. “There’s areas where there’s been some improvement and areas that haven’t been touched by any of the changes.
“A narrow policy is claiming to have a major impact that really isn’t warranted when you look,” Danley added.
“As far as incentives that the Legislature adopted, some policies in retrospect, maybe they could have done a better job,” said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University.
“They were what they were and now we’re learning, we’re taking a look at that,” said Pfeiffer, who helped design several recommendations championed by top lawmakers to help cut down on local red tape and government in an effort to push down property taxes.
“It’s not that the state has ignored Camden. It’s just that different Legislatures have tried to do different things over time, it didn’t always work.”
So what is the Camden story? A review of hundreds of pages of documents, including city budgets, ratings statements, audits, census data, state monetary aid applications and filings with different state agencies paint a picture of a city whose finances have changed little in the six years following the enactment of the landmark legislation.
That does not mean the city has not shown statistical improvements. The crime rate dropped and educational outcomes appear to have gotten better. Tax revenue and bond ratings stabilized.
Local officials argue that the revitalization process is still too young to show major improvement in the city’s economy and finances. But they are able to cite some bright spots.
“There’s been five decades of decline, so the city’s not going to transform overnight or be self-sustaining in a matter of five years. But certainly the groundwork has been laid… that will help the city to be able to sustain itself in the future,” Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli told NJBIZ in an interview.
Also participating in the 90-minute discussion were Camden Mayor Frank Moran, Freeholder Jeff Nash and Cooper’s Ferry Partnership Chief Executive Officer Kris Kolluri.
The numbers raise a question: is Camden truly a city on the rise, spurred by economic investment and tax breaks, blooming with redevelopment, investment into the community and a new life? Or is Camden a tale of two cities – massive redevelopment efforts that benefit local businesses but that left a majority of residents behind?
The answers to all those questions are complex. And over the next several weeks, NJBIZ will explore them in depth. This series is the result of months of research and dozens of interviews with local officials, finance experts, activists and government officials. The first installment, which begins on page 6, recounts the controversy over the Economic Development Authority’s tax incentive program. Future stories will trace Camden’s development and the changes in its local finances. The final piece will include a discussion of how to ensure that the next phase of the city’s recovery benefits all the city’s residents.