Christie Steers Tax Breaks to Camden to Help N.J. CityElise Young and Terrence Dopp
The last time Camden, New Jersey, had a shot at rebirth, neighborhood stability was less of a priority than drawing tourists to a bigger aquarium and buying a new scoreboard for the minor-league baseball stadium.
Fun wasn’t enough.
Crime and poverty rates, expected to ease after an injection of $175 million in state redevelopment money, instead soared during the past 12 years to become among the highest in the U.S. Now, the state has pledged more help than ever for its poorest city, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
Of $1.6 billion that Republican Governor Chris Christie’s administration granted to 81 development projects in the past year, $631 million went to Camden, whose recovery is a goal for one of the governor’s biggest Democratic allies, insurance executive George E. Norcross III. While the effort comes at a cost to suburban towns losing major taxpayers, Christie says cities in decay won’t recover without private investment.
“You’re looking for places where you can have a direct positive effect,” Christie, 52, said on Dec. 2 during his eighth public appearance in the city this year. “Camden’s one of those places.”
Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, also has reorganized Camden’s police and seized the school district to turn around the city, where 39.8 percent of its 77,000 residents live in poverty.
The high-school graduation rate, 49 percent when Christie announced the takeover, was 62 percent in June. Since 2012, when Camden was the most dangerous U.S. city in a CQ Press ranking, violent crime has dropped 22 percent, according to his office.
Still, the city remains a landscape of vacant factories and homes, and is a destination for drug sales. Men standing in the streets lean into double-parked cars that quickly drive away. Community groups secure the windows of vandalized row houses with decorative plywood to ease neighborhood blight.
For much of the 20th century, Camden thrived with such industry as the New York Shipbuilding Corp., builder of the USS Indianapolis, and RCA Victor, the phonograph and records maker. As the manufacturing base eroded in the 1950s and 1960s, crime and poverty took root.
Christie last year signed a bill fattening incentives for development in five urban areas, including Camden.
Tax breaks will bring practice facilities for the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers, relocate Lockheed Martin Corp. laboratories and Subaru of America offices from other New Jersey towns and build a factory for nuclear-reactor components. Camden expects at least 2,000 workers at the sites, occupying more than 1 million square feet, according to the state Economic Development Authority.
First in line for help was WebiMax, an online marketer that opened an office Dec. 11 after promising to double its workforce of 100 in exchange for $12.7 million in incentives. WebiMax, which was based in Mount Laurel, had been considering a move to Delaware, according to a news release.
Subaru, the latest to win an incentive, was running out of space in Cherry Hill, a township 5 miles (8 kilometers) east, where the automaker built its U.S. headquarters in 1986.
“We’re very excited to be part of a re-energized Camden,” Tom Doll, Subaru’s president, told reporters after a $118 million tax break was approved at a Dec. 10 meeting in Trenton.
“You can’t see my body in motion, but I’m jumping up and down,” said Camden Mayor Dana Redd, a 46-year-old Democrat. Christie “has certainly made Camden a player.”
While the Subaru deal is positive for Camden, financial effects won’t be immediate, Moody’s Investors Service analyst David Strungis said in a Dec. 11 report. The automaker will have a 10-year property-tax abatement on improvements on the site, currently owned by Campbell Soup Co.
“It is unclear how many of the added jobs will directly benefit current Camden residents,” Strungis wrote.
The net gain for the eight Camden projects adds up to $371 million over 35 years for New Jersey, which has a $32.5 billion annual budget. Holtec, the reactor maker that got the biggest award, $260 million, will bring the smallest benefit, $155,520.
Dave Pallas, 60, whose family has owned Swisco Inc., a Camden hardware company that employs 20 people, since 1971, said large companies won’t be “hiring people off the street” and the jobs will be filled by workers from surrounding suburbs.
“I just don’t see it helping the little guy,” Pallas, a resident of Palmyra and co-chair of Camden’s Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview. “Big corporations don’t care, because they’re self-contained. They’re not getting walk-in customers or dealing with the public. At the end of the day, they close up and go home.”
Cherry Hill, meanwhile, will lose $537,000 in annual property taxes when Subaru moves. Bridget Palmer, a spokeswoman for Democratic Mayor Chuck Cahn, said the township couldn’t compete with the state’s incentive.
Jeffrey Land, a resident for 54 years and chairman of the township Republican organization, faulted town leaders and Christie’s ties with Norcross for the loss. Incentives should attract out-of-state companies, rather than shift jobs to one town at another’s expense, he said.
“Republican principles should be that we do have separation of business and state and the less government money, the better,” Land said.
Christie and Norcross have allied on issues affecting Camden, including education. Norcross’s brother, Donald, then a New Jersey senator and now a U.S. congressman, co-sponsored the economic-development bill. Holtec and Cooper Health System, with George Norcross on their boards, have since won $300 million in tax breaks for Camden projects.
“There has never been a governor from any party that has worked so diligently for the people of South Jersey,” Norcross said at a March groundbreaking for a Camden charter school with ties to his family’s charity that will be run on public money.
Another brother, Philip, is an attorney who represented the 76ers. Philip and George Norcross didn’t return telephone calls for comment. Michael Drewniak and Kevin Roberts, Christie spokesmen, didn’t respond to e-mails requesting comment.
Donald Norcross, in a telephone interview, described his brother George as Camden’s “greatest advocate,” though one without undue influence on the incentives.
In 2002, Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey pledged $175 million in grants and loans for restoring Camden neighborhoods and rebuilding infrastructure. Kelly Francis, a retired U.S. Postal Service worker who is president of the Camden chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said $100 million of McGreevey’s pledge went toward the construction of a law school and other projects that failed to lift unemployment and provided little, if any, in the way of tax revenue.
“I’ve seen Camden at its best as an industrial giant,” said Francis, who has lived there since 1949. “There were more jobs than people.”