Over the last seven years, state and local officials spent a good deal of time and taxpayer dollars on efforts to turn around the City of Camden using the tools provided in the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013. The act was designed to bring private sector resources to bear on the problem of reviving the city. Previous efforts were driven primarily by government.
Starting in the 1980s and into the next decade under then-Gov. James Florio, local and state officials set their sights on redeveloping the marina along the Delaware River, with limited success.
In 1989, Campbell’s Soup Co. announced it would be shutting down its Camden plant — located on the waterfront — which had been its flagship manufacturing facility for nearly a century. Production stopped in March 1991 and the plant was demolished in November, witnessed by hundreds of onlookers.
The building was cleared to make way for the Camden Aerospace complex, which was used by GE Aerospace. GE bought out defense technology company RCA, which spent decades in Camden. The Martin Marietta Corp. bought GE in 1993, and merged with Lockheed Corp. in 1995 to form Lockheed Martin.
In 1997, several divisions of Lockheed Martin formed a new company called the L-3 Communications Corp., which now occupies the space, according to the L3 Harris Technologies Inc. website.
Closer to the Delaware River, construction also started on an aquarium — paid for largely by taxpayer dollars — and an amphitheater during the early 1990s. Planning for both had started years earlier.
The aquarium opened its doors in February 1992, then called the Thomas H. Kean State Aquarium at Camden, and operated by the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences. The state still owned the land, and leased it to the nonprofit NJAAS for $1 a year, according to property records and court documents.
The aquarium was reopened in 2005 following extensive renovations, and was bought by Herschend Family Entertainment in 2007, rebranding itself as Adventure Aquarium.
On the river itself, the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial — the final berth of the battleship USS New Jersey — opened in October 2001. Ownership of the property transferred from the Camden County Improvement Authority in 2015 to the Home Port Alliance for the USS New Jersey in 2016, according to property tax records.
Construction began in 1999 on the ill-fated 6,400-seat Campbell’s Field baseball stadium, which opened two years later. It was financed by $35 million of taxpayer dollars, including a $2 million direct loan and $7 million bond both from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, a $6.5 million loan from the Delaware River Port Authority and a $2.5 million grant from Rutgers University, according to the EDA.
The stadium was meant to play host to the Camden Riversharks minor-league baseball team. But the team folded in 2015 under the weight of considerable debt, leaving the property without an anchor tenant. The Camden County Improvement Authority bought the site of the now-demolished stadium from Rutgers University in 2015 for $3.5 million.
Rutgers is replacing the baseball stadium site with NCAA-level athletic facilities and the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership is looking to redevelop much of the remaining property.
An NJBIZ series examining redevelopment in the city
Part 1: A brief history of redevelopment efforts
In June 1994, the state and city opened the amphitheater, then called the Blockbuster-Sony Music Entertainment Center, in a drive to attract musical and performing arts talent to the city.
The theater changed hands several times in the ensuing decades, having been named the Susquehanna Bank Center between 2008 and 2015, and then the BB&T Pavilion. Although the EDA owns the property, Live Nation Philadelphia operates the pavilion.
Meanwhile, the state owns large swaths of land on the waterfront, where the Riverfront State Prison was demolished in 2009, which the EDA advertises to potential businesses and developers. And, the EDA still owns several parking lots near the Camden waterfront.
The rest of the waterfront is where much of the current controversy is centered. Two reports in December — one by The Philadelphia Inquirer and one done jointly by ProPublica and New York’s WNYC-FM — highlighted how South Jersey political powerbroker George Norcross, who stands at the center of the tax break controversy, and businesses and individuals within his circle gained control of Camden waterfront properties. Law firm Parker McCay – where George’s brother Philip is a partner — allegedly represented businesses during such transactions, according to the reports.
Philip’s lobbying firm, Optimus Partners, represented several clients that benefited from the Grow NJ incentive program, according to the task force Gov. Phil Murphy appointed to examine the state’s tax break regime. Parker McCay attorney Kevin Sheehan helped several businesses benefit from the program by inserting favorable provisions into the Economic Opportunity Act, according to the task force.
The EOA iterations of Grow NJ and Economic Redevelopment and Growth financing program funded the most recent wave of projects in Camden, mainly through Norcross-related businesses. The previous flagship incentive programs — the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program, the Business Retention and Reallocation Assistance Grant Program, and the Business Employment Incentive Program – attracted only a handful of companies to the city.
Campbell’s was awarded a $34 million UTHTC grant in 2016. Meanwhile, out of the 488 projects that used BEIP grants, only three went to businesses considering Camden: Accenture Federal Services LLC, Catapult Holdings Inc. and L-3 Communications, Communications Systems-East.
Much of the time since the late 1980s also involved environmental and industrial cleanup, according to Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash. “So what you see here today, if you turn the clock back 30 years, you would see nothing but wood pilings that served the industrial Camden,” Nash explained.
“It wasn’t that ‘it didn’t work’. It’s a component part of what has been built upon. So the Delaware River Port Authority, when it was doing economic development, spent significant amounts of money to clean the waterfront and that has had a positive impact,” Nash said.
In the years following the enactment of the EOA, businesses moved onto the waterfront and the neighborhoods which snake out from the downtown.
“The goal of the Grow program in Camden was to bring more private sector businesses and jobs to Camden. That’s exactly what it’s done,” former Gov. Chris Christie, who signed the EOA in 2013 and repeatedly hailed its benefits, said at an unrelated Newark press conference last September.
“If you go down Cooper Avenue in Camden now and when you compare it to when I first went down Cooper Avenue in Camden as the U.S. Attorney in 2002, it’s unrecognizable … all of the great companies that have moved in there moved in there because of that program.”
American Water opened its roughly 250,000-square-foot waterfront office in December 2018, after having been awarded a $164 million tax break in 2015.
Homebuilding company The Michaels Organization, trucking company NFI and insurance firm Conner Strong & Buckelew where Norcross is executive chairman, won a combined $245 million in tax breaks in 2017 to move into a new, 18-story Camden waterfront office tower.
Less than a block away from the Wiggins Waterfront Park is the new Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex, a 125,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2016 after the team qualified for an $82 million tax break.
Nuclear energy company Holtec International, the recipient of the second-largest tax break in state history at $260 million, opened its 600,000-square-foot technology center south of downtown Camden in 2017.
Blocks away from the waterfront, Subaru of America Inc. opened its 250,000-square-foot Camden headquarters in 2018, after a $118 million tax break that the automaker was awarded in 2014. Also further inland and away from the city’s waterfront, Resintech Inc., which manufacturers water purification products, broke ground in mid-2019 on a 385,000-square-foot manufacturing facility slated to open in mid-2020. It was awarded a $139 million tax break in 2016.
Still, in the weeks following the Murphy task force’s day-long May hearing in Newark on the Camden tax breaks — the week that many of the complaints about how incentives were awarded publicly surfaced — many activists expressed skepticism about the benefits from the program.
Dozens of critics crowded the EDA’s board meeting following the task force hearing, including Camden residents, to whom the stories of economic success were a tough sell.
“What your vision is in Camden does not include the grassroots voice nor the people who will be directly impacted,” Camden resident Roncha Dickerson said at the board meeting. “What it includes is the spirit of greed, the spirit of displacement, a spirit of racial tension, a spirit of giving no hope, a spirit of dismantling a community,” Dickerson added.
“Much of this money that the EDA has spent to develop Camden has been spent on politically connected corporations with almost no intentionality about how to involve the community, how to provide new jobs to community members or how to develop a city like Camden in a thoughtful and responsible way,” Sue Altman, then-head of the activist group South Women for Progressive Change, said at a rally outside the EDA headquarters prior to an April board meeting.
Altman has since become state director of the progressive New Jersey Working Families Alliance, and one of the state’s most vocal critics of the tax incentive program and Norcross.
Next week: Measuring progress
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:31 p.m. EST on Feb. 25, 2020. A previous version of this story indicated that the NJEDA still owned property that previously housed the Riverfront State Prison, which was demolished in 2009. That is not correct; while the NJEDA does market it to potential businesses and developers, the state owns the land.