The importance of the rapid and fundamental change happening in Camden, New Jersey, cannot be overstated — crime is down, graduation rates are up, employment is rising, and poverty is down, giving a new life to the city and new hope to its residents. In fact, President Barack Obama, during his 2015 visit, praised Camden by saying “it is onto something” and recognized it as “a symbol of promise for the nation.” We are not suggesting that there isn’t more to do, but the progress is real.
To understand how far the city has come, it is important to understand where it began. Over five decades, Camden saw dramatic job and population losses. Multiple attempts to stem the precipitous decline failed. Further, Camden’s low-income tax base made everything from public safety to schools to basic maintenance impossible. The city and the school district became a ward of the state. Transformational change was needed.
Three facts were critical to Camden’s future: that families wanted to raise their children in safe neighborhoods and that businesses wanted to move to a city with a strong public safety infrastructure; that improving education and job training was key to keeping families in Camden; and that job growth couldn’t occur incrementally.
For each of these things to happen, there needed to be a partnership between and among state, county and local governments, businesses and the community.
Collectively, they developed an unprecedented plan. The county and city worked together to implement needed reforms, businesses invested significant capital, and the community showed faith that the city had a real future.
While everyone believed that Camden had a future, none could have predicted the pace of progress. Camden is no longer the nation’s most violent city. Crime has dropped a stunning 40 percent since the county police department was instituted. The dramatic improvement in public safety has allowed residents to reclaim their neighborhoods.
Ten schools are either being built or renovated replacing decrepit schools. Graduation rates have risen, as dropout rates have plummeted. For the first time, competition among public, charter, and renaissance schools has raised the quality of education and given parents a meaningful voice in determining the appropriate schooling environment for their children.
The dramatic changes taking place in the city have created a ripe climate for targeted capital investments reaching almost $3 billion. Billions have been invested in parks, infrastructure, schools, and projects to expand the “eds and meds” corridor, including the development of the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. In addition, more than 30 companies have already or are about to invest more than $1.3 billion in private capital in the city.
During the construction of the various projects in the city, thousands of union jobs were created and supported, including close to 400 held by Camden residents. In addition, the companies expanding and arriving in the city have already hired at least 850 Camden residents. Working with New Jersey NAACP and other nonprofits, the city and businesses are looking at ways to efficiently expand employment opportunities available to all residents.
Camden is in the midst of a remarkable transformation. It is systematically becoming a 21st century “eds and meds,” manufacturing and innovation hub. But we are cognizant that more has to be done. We want to state clearly that allowing the progress we’ve made to stop, or worse, recede, is unacceptable. It would be a disservice to the people who live in Camden and to the state’s taxpayers who will have to continue subsidizing the city ad infinitum.
State and regional leaders must join Camden’s government, residents, religious, nonprofit, and businesses stakeholders by committing to being part of the city’s progress. We strongly believe that business leaders need to continue to make the investments in the city they’ve committed to, including hiring Camden residents; and community leaders need to hold them to their commitments to make Camden a better place to live and work. Camden is experiencing a renaissance that should — that must — continue.