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At Camden’s Whitman Park, an $8 million youth sports complex opens on a formerly contaminated site

The complex has been expanded from six acres to 10 and serves as the core of Whitman Park.

A new synthetic turf football field is part of a renovated youth sports facility at Whitman Park in Camden. The football field used to be a contaminated medical laboratory complex that was razed and cleaned.
A new synthetic turf football field is part of a renovated youth sports facility at Whitman Park in Camden. The football field used to be a contaminated medical laboratory complex that was razed and cleaned.Read moreFrank Kummer

The Camden Laboratories site began as a city hospital in the 1920s before ending up as an abandoned wreck, its buildings housing the homeless and patrolled by feral cats, as mercury-tainted grounds became an illegal dump site that schoolchildren had to walk by daily.

On Thursday, officials held an opening ceremony for a newly renovated, $8 million sports complex where a synthetic turf football field now spans the old tainted site. It’s part of a complete transformation of Whitman Park: Its sports complex has been expanded from six acres to 10 and serves as the core of the park.

The process took a year as the four-acre lab site had to be razed and cleaned for incorporation into the existing complex. Improvements include new basketball courts, renovations to a baseball field, and construction of a second baseball field. Work also included a new playground, lighting, scoreboards, a concession stand, multipurpose room, a shaded area, bathrooms, and cooling sprinkler.

‘Dream come true’

“What we had before, and now seeing what we got now is like a dream come true,” said Desmond Newbill, president of baseball operations for the Whitman Park Little League.

Brad Hawkins Sr., a coach in the Whitman Park Tigers youth football program, said he cried when he saw the completed project several weeks ago.

Hawkins noted that five city residents who played youth football are now in the NFL. The list of players includes his son, Brad Hawkins Jr., who is on the New England Patriots practice squad, and Haason Reddick of the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We spent a lot of time, a lot of money gathering this football program together, trying to find resources to fund it,” Hawkins said. “It’s been challenging throughout the years.”

Now, his players, he said, can be proud of the field they play on.

Camden labs

The site of what became Camden Laboratories was first developed by the city in the 1920s as the Camden Municipal Hospital for Contagious Diseases. In the 1950s, it was transformed into the South Jersey Medical Research Foundation Laboratory and became the home of the Coriell Institute for Medical Research.

Over the decades, the original buildings were torn down and laboratory buildings were built in their place through the 1980s.

Camden Laboratories bought the site in 1989 and ran a series of medical research labs there until 2007.

Parts of the land and buildings were contaminated over the years, though not a threat to neighbors. Animals were used in the labs to study diseases and reaction to viruses. Their carcasses were incinerated and the ashes were disposed off-site.

Investigations by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found that a mercury spill contaminated a 24-by-34-foot patch of soil and penetrated 23 feet deep. About 1,000 tons of soil had to be removed for cleanup. Other contamination has also been cleaned.

Seven dilapidated buildings had to be demolished. Contractors removed soil and made the land ready for the athletic complex.

That work was paid for by a $2.1 million DEP grant, and a $750,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The Camden Redevelopment Agency was also involved in the remediation.

Overall, demolition and cleanup cost about $3 million. Renovations and new construction at the complex cost another $5 million, funded by the DEP, Camden Redevelopment Agency, Camden County, and other sources including a contribution from former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski’s foundation.

The Whitman Park project is part of a $19 million Camden County plan to improve 10 parks across the city.

‘Tears in my eyes’

Jaworski said he “was stunned” when he walked onto the field. “This was literally a dump. And it was bad … I literally had tears in my eyes walking from the parking lot and onto these fields.”

Mayor Vic Carstarphen recalled when he and Jaworski visited the site a year ago for the groundbreaking.

“The old Camden Lab site … negatively impacted this community for years,” Carstarphen said. “Now look at what we’re standing on.”

County Commissioner Jeffrey Nash recalled a conversation with Hawkins, who once asked him why the children of Camden couldn’t have the “type of athletic fields that the children in the suburbs enjoy every day.”

Now they do, Nash said.