One by one, they came up to the podium: A former New Jersey governor. A CEO of a company that built its new headquarters on the Camden waterfront. A longtime city resident who turned his life around after being incarcerated and has risen up the ranks of a company that recently won a state tax credit to expand.

The visuals and the stories of a fallen city, now rising, conveyed a strong show of support for a state tax break program that has directed $1.6 billion to companies expanding in Camden, and that has come under investigation.

And then came the last speaker, another former governor — James Florio — who said, “It’s important for us to address the controversy and get beyond it.”

“If somebody did something illegal, they should be pursued under the law,” Florio said, inside a Camden government building named for him. “What we can’t be having is defamation by anecdote.”

The hour-long press event, packed with public officials past and present, came two weeks after a public hearing, where an investigative task force, appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy, questioned claims in four tax credit applications, collectively worth $285 million. All four applicants have ties to South Jersey power broker George Norcross III — who, through his firm’s lawyers and in a lengthy media interview, has lambasted the investigation and the governor, and claimed the hearing violated the companies’ rights.

Camden elected officials, for their part, have proffered a steady stream of statements, casting the investigation as an attack on efforts to revitalize one of the state’s poorest cities. They have cited the city’s reduced crime rate and its ability to attract big-name businesses as signs of progress. And they call the investigation a “proxy war.”

Community activists, however, including the Camden County NAACP president, have continued to raise concerns about hiring efforts by companies that received the credits from the New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority (EDA), and have asked to see jobs data.

Outside of Thursday’s event, protesters on the sidewalk chanted calls for justice and carried signs that read “Where are the jobs?!” and “We are your boss NOT Norcross.” One man carried faux money emblazoned with a portrait of Norcross, the executive chairman of insurance brokerage Conner Strong & Buckelew (which was approved for $86 million in tax credits) and chairman of Cooper Health System (which won approval for $40 million in tax credits).

A Camden resident shows a fake United States currency bill with the face of George Norcross during a protest outside the Governor James J. Florio Center for Public Service building, during a news conference in Camden on Thursday.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
A Camden resident shows a fake United States currency bill with the face of George Norcross during a protest outside the Governor James J. Florio Center for Public Service building, during a news conference in Camden on Thursday.

Inside, Camden Mayor Frank Moran said the 30-plus companies that have been approved for tax credits in Camden “are creating a platform to build a sustainable city.” More than 850 city residents have obtained jobs so far, he said.

That figure comes from preliminary data collected from companies by Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit redevelopment group. The jobs figure corresponds only to tax credit recipients that have opened in Camden so far, and equates to about 15 percent of total employees. Cooper’s Ferry continues to gather data, according to CEO Kris Kolluri.

“This is a good starting point and not the end objective," said New Jersey state NAACP president Richard Smith, referring to the 15 percent statistic. Camden hiring needs to focus on workers such as high school graduates who aren’t ready to start college, on displaced workers, and those with criminal records, he said.

The NAACP launched a national “One Million Jobs” campaign last month, to bring formerly incarcerated people into the workforce. “There’s no better to kick off the New Jersey leg” than in Camden, Smith said, adding that Norcross agreed.

“He and I sat and shared our vision for a better tomorrow,” Smith told the news conference, "and I was inspired, when I asked him about this million jobs campaign that he said: ‘I’m in. Let’s get to work and make it happen.’”

Former Gov. Jon Corzine commended the “remarkable change” in Camden since the days when the city was placed under state control. “This is a work in progress,” he said, “but it’s one that people can be very proud of.”

Murphy appointed the task force after a state audit found “numerous significant deficiencies” with EDA oversight, including the agency’s ability to verify whether companies created jobs in exchange for the tax breaks.

In an interview Thursday at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, Murphy said that “the question is, not just in Camden — in every community — did these benefits go to the broad community or to a select few?”

The task force, chaired by Rutgers Law professor Ronald Chen, has focused on who may have influenced tax credit legislation behind the scenes, as well as the veracity of claims by companies that said they were considering moving to another state.