The tour bus wound through Camden, its theme “The Tale of Two Cities,” with the recently-appointed chairman of the embattled Economic Development Authority aboard.
The bus stopped at the Camden High School sports field, where a locker room filled with mold and asbestos had to be condemned. It trundled along Haddon Avenue, past boarded-up row houses and a smattering of hair-braiding shops.
And then it glided toward Camden’s waterfront, where the streets grew smoother, the streetlights became more readily apparent, and big new buildings, which won hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credit approvals, hugged prime space along the Delaware River.
“It certainly is a city of extremes,” the EDA’s Kevin Quinn, a former Goldman Sachs executive, said by the end of the tour, organized by community coalition called “Camden We Choose.”
“It helps me put into context how aggressively the governor is pushing his progressive agenda," he said. The governor is pushing for more help for the middle class, including tax breaks for small and medium sized businesses. "If anybody had any questions about his agenda, they ought to spend a day like I spent.”
Less than two months into his role at the EDA, Quinn was the only member of the board who accepted an invitation from community organizers to tour Camden on Wednesday, amid intense public scrutiny and multiple investigations of the tax break programs that the agency administers.
Some community groups in Camden, for their part, say regular residents have been left out of the economic development process, and aren’t reaping jobs or other benefits from the approximately $1.6 billion in tax breaks that have flowed to the city since 2013.
Ronsha Dickerson and other organizers of the tour stressed that they weren’t anti-development. The larger question was, she said: “When development is happening, do you have the people who live in the city at that table?”
Given that’s he only just arrived at the EDA, “I think it makes it much easier for me to be on this trip,” Quinn told reporters after the tour. “I can imagine, for some people, feeling incredibly awkward. At that last EDA meeting [in May], there was a call for all the incumbent board members to resign.” That hasn’t happened.
With a nod to his own advocacy work – on gun violence, as chairman of the nonprofit group Brady – he also said he welcomed activism: “I think people’s involvement in public processes is essential to better government... I’m all for creating signs and making people uncomfortable."
As for the tax credit deals that have drawn scrutiny so far, Quinn said “the best kind of deals are ones where people meet in the middle, 50-50 deals.”
“There’s something about today’s experience," he added, “where it just felt like the community and the business community didn’t meet in the middle.”
Quinn heard from small business owners along Haddon Avenue, such as Todd Israel, who runs T.I.'s Next Level Barber Shop. He has run the business there since 1998. “I have a lease,” he said. “I would like to be an owner.” But he said seeking financing help from local officials has come to no avail.
Many of the Camden tax credit recipients have ties to South Jersey political boss and businessman George Norcross III. The insurance brokerage that Norcross leads, and two other companies, are building a Camden waterfront office tower that won approval for $245 million in tax credits.
A special task force has raised questions about those companies’ applications, and whether the jobs they promised were actually at risk of leaving New Jersey, absent the tax incentives.
Norcross has vehemently defended the investments in Camden and is now suing the governor in order to disband the task force, claiming it was created unlawfully.
A state grand jury served the EDA with a subpoena last week. Quinn declined to comment on pending litigation Wednesday.