Sixers to move headquarters to Camden

Posted: June 12, 2014

ON AN ICY Christmas night in 1776, George Washington led his troops across the Delaware River to secure America's independence and to fight unfair taxation.

Yesterday, Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O'Neil flexed the franchise's freedom to find tax breaks, announcing that the team and its employees will cross the river to the Camden waterfront to open a new headquarters and a state-of-the-art, 120,000-square-foot practice center by June 2016, thanks to $82 million in tax credits approved by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority Board.

The NBA team will still play its home games at the Wells Fargo Center about nine miles away in South Philly. But everything else will happen in Camden, on a 4-acre parcel near the Susquehanna Bank Center and the Adventure Aquarium, two other venues that were heavily subsidized by state funding.

"We've got great comfort that this is a city on the rise and we hope to play our small part here," O'Neil said yesterday after the funding was approved, inside the Waterfront Technology Center on Federal Street in Camden.

The Sixers, O'Neil said, are the only NBA franchise without its own practice center. The team has been drilling since 1999 at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, on City Avenue near Monument Road, and team officials say that's been a detriment to luring prospects and free agents to the floundering franchise.

"This will be the biggest and best training center ever built in the U.S.," O'Neil said of the planned Camden facility.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd, who stood beside O'Neil, touted the move as a way to "write a new story" about Camden and its residents.

"This is just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg, of what is to come," Redd said.

The new center, according to the development authority, would have a $76 million economic impact on Camden over 35 years.

But at least one person at the morning meeting questioned whether it would have any real effect on the city's residents.

Kelly Francis, president of the Camden County branch of the NAACP, asked O'Neil whether there would be any entry-level jobs at the complex.

"We need a shooting guard," O'Neil jokingly responded.

Camden, one of the poorest cities in the nation, has an unemployment rate of 12.3 percent, and although the Sixers are required to provide 250 jobs there to maintain the tax breaks, O'Neil said 200 of them are already filled.

The center may host youth camps and youth activities from time to time, O'Neil said, but practices will not be open to the public, unlike the Philadelphia Flyers practices at the Skate Zone in Voorhees Township, Camden County.

The Sixers have no immediate plans for retail space, but it's possible, O'Neil said.

Still, Redd said the practice center could draw new small businesses such as restaurants or cafes. "We are open for business," she said.

Francis, a longtime resident of Camden's Parkside section, said the Sixers, not Camden residents, had made out the best. Camden's major waterfront projects over the last two decades - the Susquehanna Bank Center, the aquarium, and Campbell's Field - have not resulted in large numbers of full-time jobs for city residents, he said.

"I would have preferred if the site were marketed for some industrial use, a factory maybe. There's only four taxpaying businesses on the whole four-mile waterfront, from North Camden to Gloucester City."

O'Neil confirmed that the tax breaks had lured the Sixers away from other possible venues in the city, specifically the Navy Yard. "The opportunity provided through the tax credits allowed us to take a whole 'nother step in terms of size and scope of the project," he said.

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said Philly's mayor was disappointed by yesterday's news. McDonald said the city stands to lose between $1.5 million and $2 million in wage taxes because of the move.

"We thought we had a good approach for the team, but they made a business decision and chose otherwise," McDonald said. "It's a regional economy and we encourage and support the revitalization of Camden."

Other groups criticized the deal that New Jersey doled out.

The nonpartisan New Jersey Policy Perpective said tax subsidies for stadiums and facilities were notorious for "short-changing the taxpayer and exaggerating the benefits."

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, an organization funded by the conservative Koch brothers, likened the deal to "corporate welfare."

"It's regrettable that Gov. Christie and others in the Legislature continue to buy into the idea that these kinds of corporate-welfare handouts will bring jobs and economic growth," AFP state director Daryn Iwicki said in a statement. "If they were right, Atlantic City would be a bastion of prosperity today, but it's far from it."

A spokesman for Christie did not return a call for comment.

Along with tax breaks, the 76ers will have an advantage if the complex lives up to the hype, sports agent Tony Dutt said.

"If you don't have a top facility, it puts you behind the eight-ball, especially for free agents who've been around," Dutt, who represents former Sixer Jrue Holiday, said yesterday. "The facility is supposed to be like another home."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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