"This has been a long time coming," said Anthony Sanzio, vice president of global communications for Campbell. "We're going to tear the building straight to the ground."
Campbell has made tremendous progress revitalizing the area, Sanzio said, but has a long way to go.
"We have a deep appreciation for the city's history," he said, adding, "Today is about looking ahead, not nostalgically looking back at the past."
In 2007, Campbell announced plans to demolish the building to construct an office complex. The company has salvaged signs, limestone, and architectural accents to be used on the new facility, for which there is no date scheduled to start construction.
Campbell prevailed with its plans despite years of protests and legal challenges. The old store continued to deteriorate, with a two-alarm fire burning through part of the 120,000-square-foot building in December.
Campbell is planning a complex of between 250,000 and 500,000 square feet to attract other businesses, Sanzio said. It has no plans to expand its own business along the boulevard, he said.
As Winzinger Inc., of Hainesport, began the demolition Wednesday, spectators took pictures and recalled memories.
Susan Hyland, 70, of Collingswood, said she bought at Sears a blue dress with a sash that she wore to start her honeymoon in 1968. She still has the dress and vividly remembers shopping for it. "I was hoping it would stay and have a viable use," she said. "I'm sorry to see the old building go."
Her mother took her shopping there at a young age, and Hyland recalled falling while walking along the curb in front of the store.
"I cut my knee and still have the scar," she said.
The Rev. Tim Merrill of Rosedale Baptist Ministries on Westfield Avenue grew up on Newton Avenue, just south of Campbell. His former house was torn down to make way for I-676.
"I'm a little ambivalent," he said watching Wednesday's demolition.
"One of my earliest memories is watching Santa Claus appear at Sears in 1965," he said. "It was a store. It wasn't a museum or the house where my grandmother was born. For a lot of us, it symbolizes what went wrong in Camden, when the store left and moved" to Moorestown Mall.
Merrill, who now lives in East Camden, said he hoped Campbell's plans include economic growth that includes Camden residents. He wants to see local contractors put to work and training programs that will make students employable. He thinks it could be a "win-win," but fears it won't.
"You've got everything that should point to a turnaround, but it just doesn't happen," Merrill said. "I don't think the business concerns are that forward-thinking."
Sanzio predicted a different future. He said Campbell came to Camden in 1869 and had remained even as the local industrial market declined. "Today marks an important step in our plans to revitalize the Gateway District and the city of Camden," Sanzio said, adding later, "We want to give our plan a shot."
The demolition is being done with a small crew. Ross Caldwell, a manager hired by Campbell to oversee the project, said implosion was not an option because the building was not large enough.
Martin McIntire, 71, of McIntire Excavating, has worked closely with Campbell in preparing the area for development.
"I have a lot of history with the building," McIntire said. He grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, came to Camden more than 40 years ago to work for Radio Corp. of America, and lives in Mount Laurel.
"We used to shop here. Sears was the place to go," McIntire said. "I bought my first swimming pool here."
Watch as the former Sears building in Camden begins to come down. www.inquirer.com/sears
Contact Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838, at Boyer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @bbboyer.