“Camden Rising” was supposed to be more than a rebranding of stale urban redevelopment notions. As created by South Jersey Democratic boss George E. Norcross III, the grand plan would go beyond commercial and institutional projects and reform public safety, education, recreation, and even life itself in the chronically impoverished, postindustrial city of 75,000.
It was made possible by an Economic Opportunity Act passed by lawmakers in 2013 and endorsed by Gov. Chris Christie.
But a heated six-hour hearing in Newark last week by the task force appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy to investigate the state incentives revealed cracks in the thinking. It also revealed how deeply the old-fashioned, old-boy, business-as-usual political culture is embedded in New Jersey. That’s particularly true in the city and county of Camden, where an autocratic single-party system has maintained a suffocating grip for decades.
The Camden Rising Plan called for creating jobs by conferring a billion dollars or more in state tax breaks to persuade businesses to move to or expand in the city.
Ordered by Murphy, an audit of the Economic Opportunity Act released in January by the state comptroller questioned the oversight and administration of billions of dollars in tax credits awarded to companies who promised to bring jobs to the state, Camden included. The comptroller’s office was unable to verify the existence of thousands of jobs that companies said they had created or retained. The audit criticized the oversight by the state’s Economic Development Authority, which administers the tax incentives.
A recent New York Times report claimed that many of the tax-incentive deals went to those with close ties to New Jersey officials and power brokers. One included a $260 million tax break to Holtec, which the state’s own analysis found would benefit the state $155,520 over the next 35 years.
Why are so many political leaders of every stripe and from every state still so smitten with tax incentives? They promise much more than they deliver. In exchange for generous tax breaks, jobs are promised, but often don’t materialize. When they do, those jobs often come at outrageous costs.
Last year, during the free-for-all for the Amazon headquarters and the subsequent withdrawal from New York because of public and political outcry over incentives and giveaways, it seemed that the shine for this particular brand of corporate welfare might get permanently tarnished. The outrage from New Jersey tax-credit champions suggests otherwise.
For all its sophisticated media and savvy nods to community engagement, Camden Rising turns out to be strikingly similar to the sorry succession of top-down redevelopment mega-developments with names like City Within a City, and Cherokee. These overly ambitious schemes promised that if city residents accepted something they didn’t want (displacement, gentrification), they would be rewarded with needed jobs and investment.
Those schemes didn’t materialize, but a critical mass of commercial, industrial, institutional, and even residential buildings actually has risen in the heart of the city, and beyond. Without community benefit agreements or a mayor with power, the people for whom Camden is supposedly rising are likely to end up with little to show for the subsidies they’ve helped pay for.