By Christopher Lang, April 2, 2018 at 3:00 AM | NJBIZ
Once an economic powerhouse in New Jersey, Camden was home to phonograph manufacturer RCA Victor, USS Kitty Hawk builder New York Shipbuilding and 125,000 city residents.
Today, its population of 74,000 — survivors of decades of urban decline — see signs of hope for a rebound to better times. Since 2015, the city has won $2.5 billion in private investment from companies including carmaker Subaru of America.
Some $1.1 billion in economic incentives have helped, with Camden among cities nationwide seeking to woo Amazon to build its second headquarters locally, though it failed to make it to the second round of consideration in that corporate sweepstakes. The city also recently approached Apple with a similar second-headquarters bid.
Meantime, it has attracted a 125,000-square-foot training complex of the Philadelphia 76ers pro basketball team, built in 2016, and Subaru will relocate from nearby Cherry Hill to a 250,000-square-foot headquarters in May. Local planners credit financial incentives under the 2013 Economic Opportunity Act for the progress.
“There’s never been a time in this city where there’s been a perfect alignment between business leaders and policymakers, who are all focused in the same direction and to achieve the same objective,” said CEO Kris Kolluri of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, which facilitates much of the local redevelopment.
But lately, it appears public and private officials are making a concerted effort to pull together. Since Camden County created a unified police force in 2013, area crime has decreased, according to records. Violent crimes in the city of Camden dropped 25 percent last year; its 23 murders – 60 percent fewer than in 2016 – represented a 40-year low.
“That was the No. 1 issue that had to be dealt with,” said Camden City Mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran, a 20-year elected official now in his first term. “When investors are looking to relocate, the No. 1 thing they are looking at is crime statistics and public safety. We are seeing that change, and we are a safer city.”
The mayor said that Camden must improve public safety. Expansion of its diverse business community should help.
“Jobs are the essential ingredient,” said Michael Egenton, executive vice president of New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce.
Companies such as Holtec International, which now has a manufacturing facility in Camden, are committed to hiring and training local residents. The company has hired approximately 50 city residents so far.
“Holtec International has contracts that are 30 years long,” said Moran. “People are going to be hired at Holtec, and they will retire at Holtec.”
In several spots throughout the Camden area, redevelopment projects have rehabbed dormant industrial sites into office space or other modern uses.
In one such project, the site of the onetime Ruby Match Factory near the Delaware River waterfront is under development into loft offices. The 119-year-old building’s brick and wooden truss work have been preserved and modern amenities are being added.
Marketing materials for the 74,500-square-foot building tout the availability to tenants of annual tax credits of $10,000 or more per employee for 10 years “just for choosing Camden.”
Since 2016, the Camden metropolitan area has added 18,900 jobs for a total 535,200 workers, and its unemployment rate has been shaved notably. But New Jersey Department of Labor statistics show the jobless rate in the city itself stands at 9.9 percent, well above the county average of 5.2 percent.
“We need to make sure Camden is not just a functional city, but one were everybody can be part of this prosperity,” Kolluri said.
Toward that end, the city has 30 active development projects plus 140 acres of available land for additional development.
Centers such as the Camden County One-Stop Career Center are working with businesses to address job-training needs. Programs offered cover a wide range of industry from the medical fields to carpentry.
Meantime, the bigger businesses moving into the city have also benefited smaller businesses downtown. “As a local guy, I’m very big on supporting the mom-and-pops [and] we wanted to create modest opportunities for them to grow,” Moran said.
“Large companies have the ability to leave the state when tax or financial situations change,” Egenton said. “But Main Street, yes, they may scale back or make changes to offset losses, but if they don’t have that mobility option they may end up closing and you don’t want that to happen.”
The Economic Opportunity Act expires Dec. 31, and some are concerned.
“There’s a certain buzz about Camden right now,” said Louis Cappelli Jr., director of the Camden County Board of Freeholders. “But the next phase of the renaissance is the creation of new housing opportunities in the city, because more residents will actually be living in the city in future years.”
Cappelli said the city needs to add more housing not just for current residents but also for a projected 5,000 to 7,000 new workers coming to Camden in the next five years.
Moran said the city and county also need to continue investing in mass transit upgrades. Plans include a project to modernize Port Authority Transit Corp.’s PATCO Speedline into Philadelphia. To date, Camden has spent upward of $60 million on infrastructure improvements such as road fixes and sewer lines, the mayor said.
“We will continue to create,” Moran said. “Finally, Camden is getting its due.”