Time to remove an obstacle to progress in Camden

Campbell Soup Co. headquarters can be seen behind the Sears Building, which will be demolished. (MEL EVANS /Associated Press)
Campbell Soup Co. headquarters can be seen behind the Sears Building, which will be demolished. (MEL EVANS /Associated Press)
Posted: June 16, 2012

In a perfect world, Camden's historically significant Sears Building, which 85 years ago began welcoming motorists from Philadelphia into the smaller industrial city, would have new life in the 21st century.

But perfection rarely applies to anything, and certainly to very little in New Jersey's poorest city, which, since Sears moved its premier store to Moorestown in 1971, has mostly tried to survive on a steady diet of decline.

With that in mind, it's no wonder that Camden Mayor Dana Redd labeled Monday's announcement that the Sears Building would be razed as "great news." The landmark has been bought by Campbell Soup Co., which plans to tear it down to make room for an office park.

This Editorial Board a dozen years ago lamented the fate that now appears set for the Sears Building. Built in 1927 on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, it was one of the first department stores located outside of a city's downtown; and it had its own parking, a precursor to the suburban malls that eventually drew its former customers.

But attempt after attempt to repurpose the stately facility with Greek Revival architecture never met with success. It has been used as a nightclub, a car dealership, a day care, and a housing authority office. Plans by a jeans manufacturer to make it its base fell through, so it's mostly been empty for five years. It's time for this old horse to be put out of its misery.

Campbell deserves gratitude for patiently pursuing ownership of the four-acre site, which it has purchased for $3.5 million. It first announced the office-park plans in 2007 as part of an expansion of its headquarters. After being blocked by a lawsuit, the Fortune 500 company, which has been in Camden since 1869, threatened to leave the city, but it instead continued to fight for the property.

It would have devastated poor Camden to lose its only major taxpayer. While many of the city's other commercial enterprises may enjoy tax breaks used to lure or keep them in Camden, Campbell pays the city more than $1.3 million a year in taxes and other payments.

Campbell's announced plans don't include putting another structure on the Sears site, but company spokesman Anthony Sanzio says Campbell will work with the Camden County Historical Society to commemorate the Sears Building in some way. That's appropriate. As community activist Frank Fulbrook said, it would be a shame to see the site become nothing more than "a big front lawn."

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