Promised jobs not yet delivered in Camden

Jamie Foye applied during an Amir Khan rally for one of the manufacturing jobs that have not materialized.
Jamie Foye applied during an Amir Khan rally for one of the manufacturing jobs that have not materialized. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 24, 2014

CAMDEN Camden mayoral candidate Amir Khan announced during his fall campaign that ACTS Industries would open in the city and hire up to 1,000 manufacturing workers.

Thousands of people - some in suits, resum├ęs in hand - filled out applications at a packed campaign rally for Khan in a parking lot outside a vacant factory.

Today, the building, a former manufacturing plant for RCA, is padlocked, and applicants are still waiting for calls.

"It was a hoax," said Anita Hicks, a mother of two who applied at the rally in October. "And half the city fell for it."

Though many residents have written the event off as a vote-getting spectacle, owners say that their company is legitimate and that contamination issues at the site and finances had delayed hirings. They insist that the jobs will come to Camden and that the company, which makes materials for modular housing, could bring in big bucks.

"It's still on the books. It's always been our intention to open in Camden," said Anthony Calzaretto, an associate with ACTS, owned by Irvin Richter, chief executive officer of Hill International, a multimillion-dollar international construction consulting company in Marlton.

"I can't blame" the applicants, Calzaretto said. "Unfortunately, when it comes to development and construction in the City of Camden, what have you seen that happens fast?"

Richter, who could not be reached for comment this week, said in a question-and-answer profile in The Inquirer this month that he needed to secure $40 million more for the Camden facility and that ACTS couldn't apply for permits until it gets the money and finalizes the location.

Camden spokesman Robert Corrales said the city had yet to hear from the company.

"The city will welcome any business opportunity that comes to Camden that's real and legitimate, but we reached out to them in October and never heard anything. I feel bad for our residents; that's who they're really hurting," he said.

If the factory did open and hired 1,000 people, the number of manufacturing jobs in the city would increase by a third. Camden has an unemployment rate of 16.6 percent, more than double the national average. ACTS also said it was open to hiring the formerly incarcerated, a big draw for residents with criminal records.

Jamie Foye, 51, lives around the corner from the factory building and has been looking for work since 2012. "There's just nothing out there. It was a crappy thing to do to people. At least send out a letter and tell us what's going on," she said.

The original timeline outlined for applicants was to start hiring within four weeks of the Oct. 13 rally. That plan was put on hold when disagreements with the landowners, Camden Properties Inc., arose over who would be liable for site remediation, Calzaretto said.

Attempts to contact Camden Properties were unsuccessful.

The parcel at East State Road and River Avenue is on the state's list of contaminated sites. Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese said the contaminant levels, from underground oil tanks, posed little threat and would not prevent operations from starting.

ACTS Industries would manufacture panels for temporary modular homes to be shipped to disaster areas.

For the thousands who stood in the unseasonably hot sun on that October afternoon, the details of the delay don't matter much. Some residents of Ablett Village, subsidized housing across the street from the building, showed up as early as 7 a.m. to wait in line for the 1 p.m. event.

"I was pretty far ahead, so I thought for sure I'd get a job. I was hopeful," said Shamar Cunningham, 18, who also registered to vote that day. A volunteer "told me I had to register before I could get the application."

It wasn't the only politically savvy move at the hybrid job fair/rally. In October, volunteers at the event received e-mails from Khan's campaign saying they would receive priority consideration for hiring if they worked two of his events. Richter has since said everyone would be treated equally. Khan said the e-mail was sent out by a campaign worker without his approval.

Calzaretto said that although he's hopeful the River Avenue location will work out, the partners were scouting other Camden locales. "The important thing is to keep the company here," he said.

The factory was initially slated for Philadelphia, Miss., but was diverted to Camden, partly because of Khan's encouragement. "We had the waterways, railways, so many things conducive to the transporting of this product," Khan said.

He received 20 percent of the vote, losing to Mayor Dana L. Redd, and continues to work as a pastor and founder of the Nehemiah group, a nonprofit that helps the formerly incarcerated. Khan has said he has no financial stake in the company.

Theodore Lockhart, 54, said he would apply again if it meant a job. He worked 37 years at Camden Tool Inc. until he was laid off a few years ago. He spent most of his savings paying for the burial of his wife last year, he said, and now barely gets by on his welfare checks.

"A lot of companies wave their flag and then disappear. It's not so disappointing anymore. You get used to it," he said. "If they do get here, I'll go back. A job's a job."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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