By Briana Vannozzi
In the last few years the conversation around Camden has shifted from phrases like crime and distressed to opportunity and growth with over $1 billion in tax incentives granted to companies relocating to or staying in Camden since 2013. The expectations are high. But the reality is still rooted in generations of poverty.
“There’s an eagerness, given all of the tax breaks that are going to bring companies into the city, to start to take credit for something that hasn’t happened yet,” said New Jersey Policy Perspective Vice President Jon Whiten.
During NJTV’s In Your Neighborhood forum focusing on jobs in Camden city, panelists showed a clear divide on ways the state is spurring private investment there. The Grow New Jersey program helped entice 17 companies, like Holtec, Subaru, American Water Works, even the 76ers to build facilities with a job creation contingency. Roughly 3,900 in all. But many are still questioning, at what cost?
“Seventy-one percent of those jobs already exist either in the Camden suburbs or in Philadelphia and are already filled by people who are just going to continue to fill them here in Camden. So that’s a big problem. It’s great to have jobs in a city, but it’s even better to have people in the city having jobs,” Whiten said.
The left leaning think tank NJ Policy Perspective has been a prominent critic of the state’s tax breaks for the city. By their calculation, each job comes with a hefty price tag — around $300,000 a piece. But a recent federal report put the Camden metro area’s employment growth at the top in the nation — a 3.7 percent increase. And that, according to Freeholder Jonathan Young Sr., is nothing to ignore.
“There’s not a major city that doesn’t give incentives in order to keep the businesses and make that city thrive and really start to build that city up. We get so focused on just, you know, hey the jobs are coming in or these companies are coming in, but nobody looks at the effect that happens around those jobs,” Young said.
Young says new employees will frequent local shops, buy lunch, spend paychecks in Camden, adding that the one-stop center along with companies like Holtec are training Camden residents through apprenticeship programs to fill new jobs.
“In the 1980s, there was a term called trickle down economics and this sure sounds a lot like it,” said Latin American Economic Development Association President and CEO Ray Lamboy.
As a small business owner and head of the Latin American Economic Development Association, Lamboy questions corporate power.
When asked if corporations hold more leverage than the community and the community stakeholders, Lamboy said, “I think the opportunity for leverage was lost when we did not require these companies to negotiate and sign community benefit agreements.”
“First is developing a sense of self worth in Camden,” said Will Schrieks.
Eighteen-year-old Camden resident Schrieks went through the nonprofit Hopeworks ‘N Camden program, one of the many reaching out to do youth job and skill training.
“Hopeworks is really working to not just provide web design skills, helping young people learn the actual technology training and get exposed to technology, which is a career path that doesn’t necessarily require those advanced degrees, but also helping our young people think through the healing process,” said Hopeworks ‘N Camden Youth Impact Director Danyelle Austin.
In recent months, nonprofits, startups and co-working labs have been gathering to harness their energy for a city with so much potential.