It seems everywhere you look in Camden, there’s a shovel in the ground. Redevelopment projects are defining a new identity for the impoverished city, and private companies are all but jumping to grab a piece of Camden’s comeback.
“Really you’re in the center of the entire metropolitan area. This is a very easy place to attract the talent that is in the region,” said John Gattuso, senior vice president and regional director of real estate investment company Liberty Property Trust.
And it’s easy to see why Gattuso thinks so. The anchor tenant of the 25-acre Camden waterfront development will serve as the corporate headquarters for American Water Works, drawn by $165 million in tax incentives. Picturesque views of Center City Philly and access to mass transportation also sweeten the deal.
“One of the things this project will do is to improve and increase the amount of private employment that’s occurring in Camden and those 5, 6 and 7,000 jobs ultimately will support restaurants, they’ll support other amenities those employees will want,” said Gattuso.
When it’s complete, he says the site will host a Hilton Garden Inn, more offices and residential units, making it a place to attract high caliber talent.
“We expect that when employees start working here, they’ll work here for life,” said Holtec International Program Director Ed Mayer.
Similarly, energy company Holtec International relocated to Camden from nearby Cherry Hill armed with $260 million in tax incentives and a promise to hire local. Since a site visit in 2016, construction on the three main buildings is complete, and the hope that it will revive Camden’s manufacturing hub seems tangible.
“We have 400 employees, 200 of those are engineers and designers, and 200 are fabricators. What we’re very proud of is that we hired 50 Camden residents, we have six Gloucester City residents and one from Brooklawn, so where we can, we’re hiring local people because we’re invested in the community and we know that if they work here they’re invested in Holtec,” said Mayer.
The Christie administration has committed nearly $2 billion to Camden projects from the state’s Grow NJ incentive program. Companies have to maintain a certain number of employees to earn the tax credits, and there are some early signs it’s working. The latest U.S. Census Bureau data show the city’s poverty rate fell 10 percent last year, the lowest it has been in a decade. The question is, will the impact be felt beyond downtown and the waterfront?
Critics have said the deals are too generous because they involve relocating high-paying jobs from nearby south New Jersey towns without requiring these companies to commit to a community benefit agreement.
“Brandywine signed a community investment agreement and it obligates us to pay a little over $200,000 between the training programs, bike trails and improvement to certain parks around here. On top of that, I think there’s I think around $400,000 we’re committed to do improvements on public sidewalks and public facilities around the site,” said Brian Berson, vice president of development at Brandywine Realty Trust.
Brandywine Realty Trust is overseeing the Knight’s Crossing development. With anchors like Subaru and Campbell’s Soup Company, it’s being dubbed a city within a city with office parks and a transportation hub. Nearby, a new $70 million joint health sciences center is also underway.
“Over the next decade, we’ll see 24,000 jobs created in the ‘Eds and Meds’ corridor. The Eds and Meds are the largest employer of Camden residents. Over 40 percent of the jobs are in Eds and Meds, so I think residents should be excited that we are now defining a new identity for the city. We are building our city up and we’re creating jobs, not only for our adults, but certainly for our youth and many generations which are to come,” said Dana Redd, Camden’s mayor.
Most of the companies are partnering with the school district and community college to create a pipeline of programs so students are ready to hire when they graduate. Despite that, Holtec’s President and CEO Krishna Singh says only 30 percent of Camden residents who go through their training programs stay.
“First of all, most of them don’t make it through the vocational school. Once those who make it, they’re not really ready in most cases for the rigor of a disciplined work day and they drop out,” said Singh.
That’s not entirely surprising, according to economic experts. Camden has three decades of poverty to break through, and moving the needle is harder than some thought. But most agree — without these programs, Camden today would look like the Camden of 10 years ago. And this trajectory seems a lot brighter.