For years, the city of Camden has been treated like a colony by the law firms, construction firms, and insurance brokerages that have made millions of dollars through their ties to the South Jersey Democratic machine.
New Jersey’s tax incentive program has funneled $1.1 billion to companies linked to businessman and Democratic power broker George Norcross, whose supporters claim the projects reap benefits for residents in the form of more jobs and hypercharged economic development.
But recent revelations about the fight to bring a full-service supermarket to Camden show, yet again, that residents of the city are in fact the victims of these political machinations.
The Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 included a provision that would have benefited a supermarket along Admiral Wilson Boulevard — proposed by the Goldenberg Group and Ravitz Family Markets developers — and which cut out a competing supermarket proposal, Politico reported this month.
A spokesperson for the office of New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney has denied the recent revelations, but contests none of the facts. Despite efforts to hide the controversy, this injustice will not be ignored. In the end, Camden didn’t get either proposed supermarket. For a city like ours that has major implications.
Camden is one of the poorest communities in New Jersey, and it is also a food desert. This means that many residents are forced to travel to nearby suburbs to get access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and groceries.
For residents without cars, this means hour-long bus rides to Cherry Hill — or expensive cab rides back and forth.
Because of political gamesmanship, Camden residents are still suffering at the hands of bad decisions from people who never go without access to groceries.
It is time to give Camden residents what they need — not what the powerful think that they need.
Camden needs fair access to state subsidies so a supermarket, like one proposed years ago for the neighborhood near Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, can become a reality.
That’s why advocates from both the city of Camden and its surrounding suburbs are coming together to challenge the status quo and fight back against a rapacious and unresponsive political machine that benefits the same select group of selfish individuals who abuse their power.
Not every injustice is as visible as a blocked supermarket project.
Earlier this summer, Camden’s state-appointed school superintendent approved, away from public view, a series of lucrative professional services contracts for the law firm Parker McCay and to Conner Strong & Buckelew, Norcross’ insurance brokerage firm.
It’s time to reform New Jersey government from the ground up. Grassroots advocates scored a major victory against the machine in this year’s primary elections — sweeping the slate of Democratic county committee members from Collingswood and showing that when engaged residents organize they can bring about real change.
At the state level, we must start by ensuring that the story of Camden’s failed supermarket can never repeat itself.
Governor Phil Murphy and legislative leaders are beginning negotiations on a new tax incentive program after the old one expired at the end of June.
Any replacement must focus squarely on benefiting New Jersey residents — and not the politically connected.
Going forward, the state must require that companies receiving state aid hire local residents and implement robust community benefit agreements with wage protections.
The Economic Development Authority, which oversees these programs, must provide a high degree of transparency and accountability to reassure residents that their tax dollars are being well-spent.
And to repay Camden residents for the harm done to them, Trenton needs to make bringing in a full-service supermarket a priority.
We need to build a new political culture in Trenton. We can start by rejecting the corruption and culture of entitlement that allowed tragedies like this to unfold and to recommit ourselves to a new set of policies that focus on building up our communities.
Ronsha Dickerson is cofounder of Camden Parent Union. Joshua Sims is an alumnus of Camden City Public Schools and a student at Cornell University.