Outcry Has Faded, But Not Plans For Civic Center Camden County Officials Are Still Waiting For A Feasibility Study And Considering Locations.

Posted: January 24, 2001

Remember the civic center?

When it was announced almost a year ago, Camden County officials planned to build a 6,000- to 10,000-seat facility in Lawnside at a cost of about $53 million.

Enraged Lawnside residents forced county officials to drop plans to build the center there. Talk of building it in Gloucester Township provoked another storm of local protests.

Freeholder Director Jeffrey Nash admitted that the civic center has not been one of the county government's finest moments.

"We have handled it horribly," he said. "We made mistakes."

Plans were scaled back to no more than 6,500 seats and a cost between $25 million and $50 million.

Now, county officials are waiting for the completion of a feasibility study by SFX Entertainment Inc., which manages the Waterfront Entertainment Centre in Camden. The report was due originally at the end of August.

Phil Rowan, chief of the Camden County Improvement Authority, saw a draft.

"When we got their preliminary report," he said, "it just sparked more questions" on several topics, including the environment, permits, and site-acquisition costs of specific locations.

SFX spokeswoman Rachel Gary said last week that work on the study, which began in June, was still being conducted, and there is no completion date. She was unable to specify why the report had not been completed or what it might contain.

Rowan said a half-dozen sites for the center are being seriously considered. Nash, who is the freeholders' liaison to the improvement authority, said Gloucester Township was no longer one of them.

"It was trying to squeeze a square peg in a round hole," he said. "You cannot force a project like this into a community."

Nash also said he would prefer redeveloping a site.

"Tearing down something old and building something new is better than taking open space and building something new, all things being equal," he said.

Rowan said, "Ultimately, where this is going to end up, I suspect, is in an area where there are no houses, a business area that is segregated" from the residential community.

Waterford's administrator, Paul Forlenza, said the township sent a letter to the freeholders in the spring, asking that it be considered.

He said some county officials and people from SFX visited in September, looked at sites near the intersection of Routes 73 and 30, and took pictures.

"They came down, and I think they liked what they saw and what we had to offer," Forlenza said. "That's the one spot that we feel could handle [something] of that size."

He said the township also provided upon request further information such as maps, zoning requirements, and parking needs.

"I think we would like to see it land here," Forlenza said. "Being a Pinelands municipality, it would be a nice opportunity for us to get a ratable."

Pennsauken is another possibility, Nash said. The center could become part of the overall economic-redevelopment plan in the area where Routes 73 and 130 intersect. The freeholders recently contributed $90,000 to help pay for the study.

Pennsauken Mayor Rick Taylor, unlike an Academy Award nominee, believes simply being considered is not enough.

"I would love to see something like that," he said, "but we would want to see it be a perfect fit for not only the county and the township but our residents as well."

If Pennsauken is chosen, Taylor wants an opportunity to explain to residents what impact the civic center would have on the township.

"I know that there has been superficial talk, and that we are being considered," said Taylor, who added he would be disappointed if the facility was built elsewhere. "But we have our collective fingers crossed and hope that it will fall our way."

Rowan was noncommittal when asked about Waterford and Pennsauken.

"You can say we're looking at them closely," he said, "but they're not the only two sites we're looking at."

Adam L. Cataldo's e-mail address is acataldo@phillynews.com

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