Kevin Riordan: High hopes, harsh reality for Camden

Posted: December 02, 2010

Camden has long inspired grand dreams.

Like the one in which massive public investment in downtown projects and institutions can make up for the loss of 40,000 manufacturing jobs since 1950, as well as for the departure of the middle class and the decimation of the city's tax base.

Never mind that the jobs and new residents have largely failed to materialize: Since the 1960s, elected and unelected officials and their allies have gotten pretty much everything they wished for.

Hundreds if not thousands of citizens protested, but the dreamers were not deterred. They pulverized scores of houses for I-676. They leveled the heart of downtown and parts of North and South Camden pursuing that chimera called urban renewal. And they shoehorned a malodorous regional sewage-treatment plant, a cash-burning county incinerator, and a neighborhood-despoiling state prison into the city's nine square miles.

They did build a magnificent waterfront - where there is still almost nowhere to eat, nowhere to shop, nowhere to stay, and, except for the Victor, nowhere to live.

If you haven't been there, you ought to visit. After all, your taxes paid for most of it.

It seems the private sector will put money into Camden only if that investment is subsidized by the rest of us.

Even the biggest companies, whose bottom lines were enriched by the sweat of city residents for generations, want special assistance. They simply have to have loans or grants or PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes).

It's acceptable to expect, even demand, a basket of public goodies (known as "incentives") before moving to Camden. Or not moving out.

Meanwhile, ordinary people have left by the thousands. From a peak of 125,000 in 1950, Camden's population had fallen nearly a third by 1990.

By that point the city had, for all practical purposes, been insolvent for 20 years.

Nearly half of all Camden real estate was off the tax rolls, owned by tax-exempt or nonprofit entities or the city itself.

Camden raised property taxes but delayed, with Trenton's acquiescence, a citywide revaluation for 35 years.

Tax revenue fell, yet demands for services rose, because the city had become home to the region's neediest population, as well as an illegal drug trade that continues to draw at least half its customers from the suburbs.

So Camden turned to Trenton. Politicians of both parties participated in the annual hat-in-hand ritual, which was, after all, predicated on the shared dream of a Camden revitalized.

The widening gap between revenue and expenses (or, perhaps, fantasy and reality) was creatively bridged as Trenton and Camden jointly engineered "one-time-only" revenue innovations year after year.

Most of the politicians and civil servants in this balancing act had the best of intentions. They not only shared the vision, but also maintained a conviction that the citizens of Camden deserved decent public services.

Trenton's assistance carried more and more strings, culminating in the state's establishing the Camden Economic Recovery Board in 2002. But not to worry: The ERB shared the dream!

Nearly $100 million of the $170 million recovery package went toward a handful of downtown and waterfront projects and institutions. The ERB was so successful that Gov. Christie pretty much dismantled it this year - ahead of schedule.

Because our governor, it turns out, is a dreamer, too.

Christie believes Camden can budget-trim its way to solvency while helping the state solve its own fiscal mess.

He thinks Camden can lay off almost half its cops, along with firefighters and other essential public employees, yet ultimately, magically be revitalized.

That's not a dream, Governor.

That's a fantasy.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.

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