It’s a pity that Democratic party boss George Norcross and his minions didn’t make nearly as great an effort to create jobs in Camden as they did to make the city a lucrative investment vehicle — and customize it with a deluxe package of tax breaks. Had they focused on employment opportunities for city residents, rather than enrichment opportunities for well-wired companies, the stories being exposed by the Inquirer and other media, and investigated by state and federal authorities, might not dominate the headlines.
Who knows? A genuine ‘Camden Rising’ narrative might have been in play by now. And the seeds for it may yet germinate amid the new energy the massive wave of development has brought to the city’s heart.
First, state and federal investigations into how a relatively modest New Jersey tax incentives program ballooned into a behemoth six years ago must continue. Most promisingly, a savvy homegrown effort to bring existing technology, re-entry, workforce development, skills training, and mentoring programs together to prepare and place city residents in jobs is close to launching. If that succeeds, it could not only bring hope to Camden, but provide a reminder that the complicated task of revitalization requires more than tax gimmicks, but hard work by many stakeholders.
Good things are actually happening in Camden, including improvements in school test scores, lower crime rates, new parks, and a budding vitality.
While some of these are due in part to efforts led by Norcross, serious questions continue, including concerns raised in a recent story by the Inquirer’s Catherine Dunn and Andrew Seidman. They unraveled a labyrinthine real estate transaction/Norcross-related power play involving a building on the Camden Waterfront. The machinations of that deal suggest how easily what’s best for the city takes a back seat when there’s big money on the table, and also provide a rich target for the small but growing grassroots rebellion against the Democratic machine.
As existing tax incentives were intricately tailored to the special needs of certain potential applicants in Camden, little more than lip service was given to the essential task of utilizing publicly subsidized development as a tool to chip away at the city’s profound poverty.
The much-tweaked legislation that opened the sluice gates on tax breaks said almost nothing about local hiring targets. And it did even less to meet the need to build a vocational training and workforce readiness pipeline to offer city residents a shot at jobs being created. That didn’t happen, but Norcross is mobilizing his forces, including New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, to discredit Gov. Phil Murphy’s honest attempt to reform the incentives. He wants to derail the governor’s task force investigation as the machine deploys its alternative media ecosystem in order to showcase any signs of progress, such as a rating agency’s recent assessment of the city’s finances.
But what may prove far more important than political theater is the effort to link people who live in the city with new job opportunities there, and thereby begin to right a historical wrong. The people who call the city home deserve the chance to help put Camden back to work.