Kevin Riordan:

Maj. Paul Cain of the Salvation Army is working to establish the church's Kroc Center in Camden. He and his wife live in Cherry Hill.
Maj. Paul Cain of the Salvation Army is working to establish the church's Kroc Center in Camden. He and his wife live in Cherry Hill.
Posted: January 04, 2011

The simplest real estate development can get maddeningly complicated in Camden - and the Kroc Corps Community Center is not what I'd call a modest undertaking.

"We keep talking about the book we need to write about this," says Maj. Paul Cain of the Salvation Army, who oversees the $90 million project. Construction is scheduled to start in late spring and will take 18 months.

The facility ("three football fields in length," Cain notes) will offer two swimming pools, classrooms and cultural spaces, a worship center, and dozens of programs for the physical, educational, and spiritual needs of families and individuals.

Did I mention that it will rise on 24 scenic acres near the confluence of the Delaware and Cooper Rivers in Cramer Hill on a spot once better known as the Harrison Avenue landfill?

In December, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced the completion of a $20 million remediation of the site. It was the first time I'd seen Cain in action, and I was impressed.

A large man with sandy hair, lively blue eyes, and abundant charm, he worked that day's crowd of big and not-so-big shots with an ease too genuine to be calculated. He certainly knows how to sell a project.

"Camden has never had anything like the Kroc Center," says the 50-year-old father of two, who grew up in Ohio. "The Salvation Army has always been a holistic program. We serve the whole person. But this is the first time we can do it all under one roof. That's what's amazing."

Cain was ordained an officer of the Salvation Army, a nondenominational Christian church, in 1984. His wife of 30 years, Maj. Alma Cain, serves with him at the Camden citadel; the couple live in Cherry Hill.

"Both my wife and I feel this is our life's calling," Cain says. "We've been called by God to serve people in this way."

The Kroc Center "is a journey of faith for us - and for the Salvation Army," he adds.

The Cains had been posted to Salvation Army assignments in Philadelphia and elsewhere but were new to Camden when they arrived here from Columbus, Ohio, in 2007. The Kroc Center project was already in the planning stages, and Cain was charged with seeing it through (among other duties, Alma Cain is working closely with the architects, Kitchen & Associates of Collingswood).

Named for the late Ray and Joan Kroc of the McDonald's fortune, the center is among eight, including in Philadelphia, being built nationally under the couple's $1.6 billion bequest. The money pays for most of the construction, and establishes an endowment for operational expenses.

For a traditionally modest operation like the Salvation Army in Camden, the center project "is a big job," Paul Cain says. "We had to set up a development department. We didn't really have a program department. And we had to raise $10 million."

Despite the recession, "so far we've raised $3.6 million, mostly in individual donations," he says. "We'll be announcing another $1.6 million soon. It's been quite a challenge.

"A lot of people told us, 'You're crazy to do this now. Why don't you wait?' We didn't wait because we come to work here every day in Camden. We said, 'We've got to get this done and done right.' "

Other challenges stem not from the economy but from the inherent complexity of building anything in a city where neighborhoods are understandably skeptical and politicians are, well, politicians.

"I'm a pragmatist, a problem-solver. I just want to get things done," Cain says. "I'm not a politician."

Nevertheless, the Kroc Center "has the cooperation of every elected official," including Mayor Dana Redd and Gov. Christie, he notes.

The center will represent an enormous expansion not only of the Salvation Army's physical facilities (its current headquarters on Haddon Avenue will ultimately be sold) but its programs, too.

Nevertheless, "this is not a case of the Salvation Army coming in and saving the city," Cain says. "We've always been a kind of stand-in-the-gap organization, filling the gap between people who want to help and people who need help."

What he calls "the heartbeat" of Camden's Kroc Center will emanate from the community - the donors, the volunteers, the elected officials, community leaders, teachers, and coaches, and patrons, too.

"When we open and say our final thank-yous," Cain says, "it's going to take a long time."


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

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