Camden's waterfront - and its woes

A hippo and a boy meet at Adventure Aquarium. The biggest chunk of state-takeover recovery funds - $25 million - went to help expand the waterfront attraction in the nation's poorest medium-sized city.
A hippo and a boy meet at Adventure Aquarium. The biggest chunk of state-takeover recovery funds - $25 million - went to help expand the waterfront attraction in the nation's poorest medium-sized city.

N.J. vowed to revitalize the city. Today, job numbers are largely unchanged, but millions have gone to such "anchors" as Cooper, Campbell's, and the aquarium.

Posted: November 09, 2009

Second of four parts

Thanks to $25 million in recovery money, America's poorest city now has hippos.

The landmark 2002 Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act that put Camden under state control set aside $175 million for dozens of city projects. And none was larger, or more emblematic, than the $25 million expansion of the 10-year-old, state-owned aquarium.

The money bought the city a privatized aquarium with hippos, sharks, and a West African aviary. But it did not affect Camden's median income, the lowest of any medium-sized American city.

"Give us jobs, fix our schools," said Angel Cordero, a community activist. "Don't give us fish, let us fish."

Camden's residents were told the recovery would help to lift them out of poverty. The state's "strategic revitalization plan," the recovery's guide, even listed jobs as the No. 1 goal.

But it didn't turn out that way. Instead, most of the bailout money, $99 million, was allocated to the aquarium and other "anchor" institutions: tourist attractions, universities, hospitals, and government agencies.

"There was a trade-off," said Rutgers-Camden's Howard Gillette Jr.

"They gave some money to help expand the aquarium, but they expected something in return. They wanted private investment, and it's come very slowly. That's been the turnkey on each of these things - to get the private sector to do things that the public sector couldn't do."

Seven years later, these institutions have failed to create many jobs for residents or tax ratables for the city. Camden is far more dependent on state aid than before.

The law followed an old strategy of aiding the city by subsidizing its strengths, like the waterfront: Once the waterfront looked good, Camden's reputation would improve, luring investors, residents, and jobs.

"The waterfront has to be the engine of economic development," says Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., a recovery-law sponsor. "That's a gem. Patience has been tested, there's no question about it, but I think that's important."

Beyond the waterfront, the city's health and educational institutions - using an approach similar to the University of Pennsylvania's - were to be the newest saviors, with $31 million devoted to "eds and meds," including three colleges, two hospitals, and a planned medical school.

The expansion of two hospitals and Camden County College has clearly benefited city residents in direct ways. But it is unclear if such growth couldn't have happened without the state's extraordinary move of suspending the powers of the City Council and the mayor.

Roberts believes the takeover created the groundwork for the city's growth as a center of education and health care, and it has triggered so much else, like the recent closing of the state prison in North Camden.

"Has Camden been transformed as a city? Of course it has," he said.

Not according to the Rev. Willie Anderson.

"They've been giving us that crap for the last 30 years," said Anderson, chairman of Camden Churches Organized for People, which once supported the takeover. "The city looks worse than ever."

More than 40 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, and the tax base has shrunk.

Camden is the second most dangerous city in America and the poorest medium-sized city, according to national rankings. The city of 70,390 had 1,791 violent crimes in 2008, compared to 1,711 the year before the recovery began.

"Everybody's still living in terror," Anderson said, bluntly. "The communities are under siege."

Residents don't quibble with most of the projects that were funded. But where were the priorities?

How, they ask, can the state spend $11 million on a law school while failing to fulfill a recovery-law stipulation that unsafe homes be knocked down? And how, they wonder, can $2.3 million go to new infrastructure for an expanded Campbell Soup world headquarters when $20 million in neighborhood infrastructure work is canceled?

On the waterfront

The riverfront has always been the city's center. Ferry service to Philadelphia began in colonial times, and by the 1800s industrial factories changed Camden's waterfront into a potent economic hub.

That way of life ended in the mid-20th century, as new highways and a post-industrial economy turned the waterfront into a symbol of decline. Ferries stopped in 1952.

Using Baltimore as a model, South Jersey politicians and activists have since sought to give Camden new life by converting the waterfront into a destination. According to Msgr. Michael Doyle, the water is the city's "treasure." He believes that residents of a city on a river must have access to their water.

And that's why he supports the waterfront effort - including the aquarium expansion - even as he opposes the political takeover.

"We needed to open up this treasure we have," he said. "It creates a stage to say, 'We are here.' "

Since 1992, when the aquarium opened, ferry service has resumed and the waterfront has added the Susquehanna Bank Center concert arena, the USS New Jersey, a Children's Garden, and the Campbell's Field baseball stadium.

The state takeover sought to build on these existing strengths. And so if waterfront visitors today look out the car window on the way into town, they might glimpse the takeover's winners - and losers.

Visitors from Philadelphia turn off the Ben Franklin Bridge into the historic downtown, where Rutgers-Camden Law School - thanks in part to recovery money - has opened new classrooms.

They might see the rehabilitated neighborhood of Cooper Grant, the restored Johnson Park, and maybe even the new scoreboard at Campbell's Field, the Rutgers-owned minor-league stadium. The recovery funded all of those projects.

Then there's the eyesore on Cooper Street with a tree growing through it - the planned Radio Lofts, awarded $2 million for condo conversion three years ago, but delayed for environmental cleanup.

Across the street is the Board of Education, which presides over some of the worst graduation rates and test scores statewide. The board is controlled by the governor, as per the recovery law, but no money was earmarked for the district.

Pass the school board and find an expanse of parking lots on the waterfront where a state trooper is often stationed to protect the tourist attractions - while the rest of the city faces an unprecedented police shortage. Waterfront lots are among six parking projects funded with millions in recovery dollars.

One lot was built for state employees at Riverfront State Prison, which is now shuttered. A sixth of the recovery money finances state entities like this - including the South Jersey Port Corp. and a new state office building.

Some parking lots were intended to be placeholders for a future Camden "town center" called Cooper's Crossing. Steiner + Associates, a Camden County Democratic donor and Ohio-based builder that controls development rights for 30 waterfront acres until at least 2017, plans six restaurants, dozens of stores, a hotel, 1,500 residential units, a recorded-sound museum, and at least three office buildings.

So far, visitors will find only one element of Cooper's Crossing - the Ferry Terminal Building, the first privately financed office structure in the city in nearly a half-century, and touted as a key recovery accomplishment. The building is 85 percent filled with tenants, thanks in part to recovery-funded lease incentives, but a long-awaited anchor restaurant has yet to move in.

The other parts of Cooper's Crossing are on schedule, say Steiner and the state, and are coming soon.

The aquarium

Next door to the Ferry Terminal Building, visitors snap cell-phone pictures of the Philadelphia skyline before going through the aquarium entrance, which now faces Philadelphia instead of Camden.

Once inside, they leave the downtrodden city behind, and they never really return. The old New Jersey State Aquarium at Camden has a new name, Adventure Aquarium.

The gift-shop postcards say "Camden," but the mugs and snow globes are branded with an aquarium logo that makes no mention of the distressed city that politicians say the aquarium is supposed to promote.

Visitors aren't here for Camden. They're here for the fish. You can gaze at sharks straight on or look at them upside down through a marvelous underwater tunnel. You can pet them and, believe it or not, even swim with them for $165.

"He's having the time of his life!" beamed one man, visiting with his grandson. "What they did here is absolutely fantastic. He wants to work here!"

Large hippos press their noses against the glass and seals clap their fins while visitors feed birds with $1 cups of insects.

As for human food, visitors have no incentive to leave the premises. If there isn't a fish tank around that corner, then there's an aquarium vendor wearing a Hawaiian lei, listening to Bob Marley's "One Love," and selling Jamaican meat patties. It's all part of the adventure.

Across the street, the manager of the upscale Victor Pub, which recovery money supported, says he gets few, if any, aquarium visitors.

The subsidized aquarium hasn't created many jobs, either.

In Steiner's presentation to the Camden Recovery Board in July 2003, president Barry Rosenberg promised job training for city residents. The board then unanimously approved the project.

Rosenberg said such training existed at first. But Steiner sold the aquarium operations to another company, and now only 23 percent of its employees - 28 percent during the summer - live in Camden. Before the recovery, the percentage of Camden residents employed there was 43 percent.

Even George Norcross III, chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper University Hospital and a political player, says the investment in the aquarium was misguided.

"When everything around you lacks security and stability," Norcross said, "investing tens of millions in a fish tank on the waterfront does not make any sense to me whatsoever."

Anchor of activity

The aquarium opened in 1992 as part of the state's first attempt to save Camden through its waterfront. A plan for a new Campbell Soup waterfront headquarters was fading, so politicians employed the same philosophy they would use 10 years later - attractions would make people and businesses return to Camden, leading to jobs and prosperity. A marina and an office building opened at the same time.

The focus on the aquarium and waterfront met the same community skepticism as its expansion 10 years later. "We got two and three families living in one house and beautiful fishes in tanks by themselves," activist Luis Galindez told The Inquirer at the time. "We could really have used that money."

Then, as now, the aquarium and waterfront construction failed to meet expectations. It didn't replace the jobs lost at the shuttered Campbell Soup plant, and after one year, attendance lagged. The state was subsidizing the operation with millions of dollars in debt payments and operating revenues.

In 2000, Steiner began making political donations and offering plans for the waterfront. Its first donation was to Republicans in 2001, when Republican Gov. Donald DiFrancesco considered a Camden recovery law. Its executives then donated to the Camden County Democrats, who sponsored the final law.

"They were people who we thought would be beneficial, and we supported them," Rosenberg said. "There was no pay-to-play concept here at all."

Rosenberg said the state approached Steiner about expanding the aquarium because of the firm's unique expertise with such facilities, and since then the firm has worked with both parties.

Under Gov. Jim McGreevey, operations of the aquarium were deeded to Steiner, and in 2005 it opened its $57 million expansion - with $43 million in public funding. Two years later, Steiner sold the aquarium to Georgia-based Herschend Family Entertainment, but it is still responsible for development of the surrounding acres.

The stated point of the aquarium has always been to "anchor" a "critical mass" of activity to draw private, nonsubsidized development.

Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey Nash admits that the subsidized aquarium and baseball stadium "on their face don't help the city directly." But they are catalysts to make people feel comfortable visiting - and even living in - Camden again.

He cites the Victor, a luxury apartment building, restored without recovery money, yet considered proof of the waterfront's potential.

"Stand on the Camden waterfront as it existed in 1950," Nash said. "And open your eyes in that area now."

In lieu of taxes

Sure, the waterfront looks better, say longtime residents. But how does that help the city?

Greg Charbeneau, the aquarium's executive director, says the facility now pays sales tax to New Jersey, and the state no longer subsidizes it with $3 million a year. The aquarium doesn't, however, pay city taxes. It makes an annual Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT), which Steiner told the Camden Economic Recovery Board would be $1.5 million. Instead, it is about a quarter of that.

"That was the number I always anticipated we'd pay," Rosenberg said. "When I threw out the number, it was maybe based on a certain number of people [visiting]."

As part of the 25-year PILOT deal, the city gets 50 cents per paid ticket, and for 2008 received $329,663.50.

Adventure Aquarium wouldn't release its figures, but based on the PILOT, paid attendance last year was 659,327 people. In fiscal year 2004, when it was bailed out, attendance was 600,000, according to the former operator's records.

That's about $500 in recovery money for each new visitor to Camden.

"It's a nice thing, but at the end of the day it doesn't change anybody's life, and that's how we measure whether the recovery legislation was a success," said Roy Jones, a community activist.

PILOTs are common in Camden for its largest institutions and companies, and intensely debated because the discounted taxes go only to municipal governments. Schools and counties get nothing.

Most of Camden is now tax-exempt; its rate is the third-highest in New Jersey.

If the aquarium was assessed taxes at the regular rate, it would be paying more than six times as much, about $2.1 million, and $409,500 would go to the schools.

Melvin "Randy" Primas, the city's first chief operating officer, explained that the privatization happened because New Jersey wanted out of its investment.

"The aquarium was bleeding money and had to require financial assistance from the state," Primas said. "And they looked at the money and looked at how much money it would cost. You've got to keep feeding the fish."

'Means to the end'

Other institutional investments had better results, making parts of the downtown look more vibrant - with more buildings and improved streetscaping.

"Nobody could argue that they're bad things, but I think they're really below what people were thinking the money was going to go for from the community perspective," said Peter O'Connor, of the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill.

O'Connor, whose lawsuits helped to create the state's affordable-housing laws, believes the institutions could have found money elsewhere, and a mini-city of mixed-income housing with stores and schools could have been built on the water.

The law's direction was set, though, before the community could even lobby the Economic Recovery Board.

One of the cosponsors, former State Sen. Wayne Bryant, was directly connected to three institutions earmarked for $21 million: Camcare, a medical clinic run by Bryant's brother, Lawnside Mayor Mark Bryant; Rutgers-Camden, where Bryant became an occasional, paid lecturer months after the law passed; and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where Bryant had a job that would later result in a prison sentence. He was convicted of peddling his influence for the school while doing little work.

The impact of this money is mixed. At Rutgers-Camden law school, the $11 million for an expansion project helped to increase the hours of free legal work students provide city residents from about 30,000 to 40,000 hours a year.

The expansion's resulting increase in student enrollment also sets the stage, the school said, for a planned dormitory in the city.

But the school's expansion led to only one new job for a Camden resident, a custodial position.

Down the road, at a recovery-funded Rutgers business incubator in a new recovery-funded state office building, most companies do not stay in the city after graduation. Only one of the 30 companies is a major city employer; only one is owned by a Camden resident.

And at Campbell's Field, $1.2 million was lent for improvements like a new video board and upgraded plumbing. "You're using Camden as a conduit to fund your institutions, [but] the public impression was Camden was getting all these dollars," said Kelly Francis, president of the Camden County NAACP and a fiscal watchdog. "The problem is it doesn't trickle down."

But amid these disappointments, at Camden County College there's far more than a trickle effect.

The school used its $3.5 million toward a building with classrooms, a garage, a bookstore, and a computer lab, all of which serve students and the community. And the number of city residents attending the college has increased 50 percent, to nearly 2,000.

"The investment in the physical development, whether it be the law school at Rutgers, or us, or Cooper, is a means to the end," said Louis Bezich, Camden County College vice president. "And the end is what it's all about."

Thousands more people are coming to Camden now, meaning more businesses may crop up to serve them and create jobs for residents.

The hospitals

The most palpable result of this approach can be found at Camden's hospitals. Although Virtua canceled a plan to use $1 million for the city's first inpatient drug-treatment facility, as promised in the law, both Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center and Cooper University Hospital undertook major construction projects with recovery money.

In a city where nearly one in two residents visits an emergency room each year for anything from routine care to trauma, both hospitals expanded their emergency rooms. Lourdes built a new nursing school with its $4.5 million, and Cooper's $12.35 million check helped to fund a $220 million state-of-the-art patient pavilion. Cooper also received $3 million for a neonatal unit.

"The health care now is better in Camden than it has been in decades," said Norcross, chairman of the Cooper board of trustees, whose allies sponsored the law.

Focusing solely on the waterfront "was a misguided strategy," Norcross said, but by supporting institutions - "pockets of excellence" - Camden can be saved.

"Has there been enough emphasis on public safety and improvements in the neighborhood? The answer is no, and I think that's where it's got to move to."

According to Norcross, the eds and meds and Campbell Soup are now creating safe pockets that will spread to other parts of the city.

"When you're walking around Campbell Soup, Cooper's, Rutgers, there is no doubt you are as safe as in Cherry Hill, N.J.," he said.

Campbell Soup is building a $90 million world headquarters and office park with $2.3 million in infrastructure aid from the recovery fund. The construction will change the face of the city at a main entry point, Admiral Wilson Boulevard, in the Gateway neighborhood.

"Improving the front door of the city is much the same as improving the appearance of your home," said Anthony Sanzio, company spokesman. "In a sense, the revitalized Gateway district symbolizes a revitalized Camden."

The revitalization fund made Cooper's expansion possible, Norcross said. Otherwise, "Cooper Hospital would have undoubtedly expanded much faster in the suburbs."

For the first time, Cooper pays a $247,000 "service charge" to the city. Such charges were mandated for some tax-free recipients of recovery funds, and although the money doesn't go to schools, it funds city services. Cooper is spending $600 million on expansion. The only city redevelopment plan currently being pursued is connected to Cooper, and most of the recovery money devoted to buying vacant city buildings for redevelopment is for the neighborhoods next to the hospital. There are 265 properties to be bought and held for developers.

Cooper is luring its staff to live near the hospital in new housing, including 94 mostly market-rate units funded with $3.6 million in recovery dollars. And thanks to Corzine's executive order last summer, Cooper is opening a four-year medical school in conjunction with Rowan University. That project is eligible for a $9 million recovery check.

Norcross said he considered taking a new Cooper Cancer Institute to the suburbs, but saw "the success that was taking place, and the momentum."

Such momentum, proponents say, paves the way for unrelated projects on the horizon - the demolition of Riverfront State Prison, and the possible extension of Camden's rail line to Gloucester County.

Still no new jobs

Meanwhile, almost nothing is happening on the recovery's top goal, job growth, and not much was happening before the recession, either.

The only Camden sector growing jobs is health care, according to state labor statistics.

That's because many of the recovery-funded institutions aren't hiring Camden residents. Since the takeover, city jobs increased by about 1,000, but the percentage of Camden residents who held jobs in the city decreased, from 23 percent to 18 percent. Some argue that once residents get good jobs, they move to middle-class towns like Pennsauken and Winslow. But the city has been bleeding jobs for decades.

At Campbell Soup, only 3 percent of the employees are Camden residents - compared with 1989, before the plant closed, when they held a third of the 940 factory jobs.

Officials from the Camden Higher Education and Healthcare Task Force cite a 31 percent increase in residents working for the eds and meds - 400 new people making an average of $25,0000 - but it's unclear what those jobs are and whether they are full time with health coverage.

Less than 1.5 percent of the recovery dollars were spent on workforce development and job training.

In the one notable success, Respond, a longtime city nonprofit, used $1 million to build a training center for culinary arts, carpentry, auto repair, landscaping, and HVAC installation. There's a child-care center on site, and a class for teens from a juvenile-detention facility.

"Anyone . . . would agree that that was insufficient for the city of Camden," said Edward Gorman, president of American Community Partnership, which received $100,000 for a training facility yet to open. If his group had received $1 million, Gorman said, he would have trained 200 Camden residents in construction, 400 in culinary arts, and 500 as nurse's assistants.

Lack of jobs means fewer taxpayers. And by that measure, Camden has actually gone backward.

During the takeover, the city became twice as dependent on state aid - to the tune of $110 million annually, plus $308 million more for the schools. This contradicts a core mission of the law, to get Camden off the state dole.

As a self-sustaining entity, Camden barely exists.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz

at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com.

Tomorrow: How recovery efforts helped some residents but skipped over others.

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