Kevin Riordan: Uprooting Camden Children's Garden would kill a genuinely local attraction

Among amenities at the Camden Children's Garden is a butterfly house. The state has given the garden's operators until March 31 to remove all property, including its amusement rides, gazebo, and giant dinosaur.
Among amenities at the Camden Children's Garden is a butterfly house. The state has given the garden's operators until March 31 to remove all property, including its amusement rides, gazebo, and giant dinosaur.
Posted: January 28, 2013

The state claims uprooting the Camden Children's Garden will "enhance" the economic-development potential of the downtown waterfront.

What a load of fertilizer.

The plan to bulldoze most of the 14-year-old garden - a fun, funky landscape that blends elements of arboretum, playground, and amusement park - would enhance nothing. And it would obliterate the waterfront's only public attraction with true Camden roots.

Most people who work at the garden live in the city. So do many among its dwindling number of paying patrons. (Attendance estimates vary.)

As I saw when I worked there part time in 2008, before my days at The Inquirer, the garden also is the nerve center of a citywide program that was about fresh, local food before fresh, local food became hip.

But Trenton wants most of the garden - including the butterfly house, sculpture of Walt Whitman, kiddie train, and other amusements - gone by March 31. State Treasury Department spokesman Bill Quinn did not return my call on Friday.

The rides could be sold to Herschend Family Entertainment, the Georgia firm that owns the adjacent Adventure Aquarium, at "market value," a Jan. 14 letter from the state to the garden's management suggested.

Gee, thanks.

Not so long ago, the garden was hailed as a major addition to the waterfront. Built with $8.5 million in public and private money in 1999 on a vacant, city-owned tract, it was to complement the aquarium.

By all accounts, the relationship between the aquarium and the garden's nonprofit parent, Camden City Garden Club Inc., has been fractious.

A joint ticketing system ended early on, and a gate that was to allow patrons easy passage between the attractions was locked years ago.

At some point, ownership of the garden's roughly three acres was transferred to the state. The club, which has never had a lease or paid rent, was unaware of that until last year, executive director Mike Devlin insists.

The prospect of eviction "is very upsetting, and it's very distracting," he adds. "We're getting a lot of support from the city and the community, but I'm not sure if we'll be able to stay. I am sure we are on the right side and have the right argument."

Though the club could lease office space and a greenhouse there, Devlin says the loss of the garden would cripple the programs.

Anthony Perno, a waterfront-development official, says the club could continue to do what it does best - distance-learning and citywide community gardening programs, for example - and free the site for "new opportunities."

Herschend has proposed building attractions on the property, Quinn told my colleague Claudia Vargas last week.

Perno is chief executive officer of the Cooper's Ferry Development Association. The garden club "has done so much for this community," he says.

I witnessed that first-hand when I worked at the garden for five months. I came away with enormous respect for the hard work of Devlin, his wife, Valerie Frick, and countless others who made the place tick.

I'm deeply skeptical of the supposed rationale for tearing down the place. It's not like there aren't other economic-development sites. Parking lots and vacant tracts are everywhere on the waterfront.

It's also worth remembering that one of the state's previous waterfront brainstorms gave the city a sprawling prison on the Delaware.

That North Camden facility was demolished in 2009 with an eye toward attracting economic development. Three years later, the site remains empty.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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