Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Forget Amazon. Will the other big development projects Christie backed be good for Camden?

Camden had nearly 50,000 manufacturing jobs when the city's employment peaked in 1950.

Last week   groundbreaking for a $70 million health sciences center was the latest of many Gov. Christie has attended in Camden. But are the mega-projects that characterize his approach to the city enough to be truly  transformative?
Last week groundbreaking for a $70 million health sciences center was the latest of many Gov. Christie has attended in Camden. But are the mega-projects that characterize his approach to the city enough to be truly transformative?Read moreKEVIN RIORDAN

Gov. Christie has been good to Camden.

Good, as in $1.5 billion worth of state tax credits for more than a dozen major redevelopment projects; $133 million to build a new Camden High School, and sustained support for reconstituting the police department.

So good has this Republican governor's administration been to this most Democratic of Democratic cities that even after endorsing Newark's Amazon HQ2 bid rather than Camden's, Christie got a heartfelt welcome last week from Mayor Dana L. Redd and many others at a downtown groundbreaking ceremony.

As Christie finished his thoroughly upbeat appraisal of the City Invincible's progress on his watch, most of those inside the tent at Broadway and Stevens Street stood to applaud.

It was a striking show of respect for a governor whom city voters rejected by overwhelming margins during his two election campaigns, and whose statewide approval rating is 15 percent.

"No question he's been a good friend to Camden," Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones, a staunch Democrat whose district includes the city, told me.

"I've worked for Republican and Democratic governors, and the kind of commitment Gov. Christie has made is evident when you look around the city," said Kris Kolluri, chief executive officer of the Rowan University-Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors.

Speaking to me, as did Jones, before the groundbreaking for the board's $70 million Joint Health Sciences Center got underway, Kolluri insisted that the impact of the Christie administration's support for Camden will be felt far beyond downtown and the waterfront.

I hope so.

The recent surge not only in groundbreakings, but ribbon-cuttings — the Holtec International manufacturing plant ($260 million in tax breaks) and 76ers headquarters and training facility ($82 million) — is impressive in its breadth.

And while two new corporate headquarters (American Water, $164 million in tax breaks; Subaru of America, $118 million) are isolated from the surrounding city, I'm glad they're coming to town.

The enormous public investment of the Christie years would have to yield many thousands of new jobs to make a dent in Camden's crippling rates of structural unemployment and generational poverty, let alone boost its chronically depressed housing market and ever-struggling small business community.

I'm not sure that anyone commuting to the Subaru headquarters from the suburbs (driving will be the only practical way for most)  will brave the parking lots, empty lots, highway loops, and distances they'd have to navigate in order to buy lunch downtown, rather than back in Cherry Hill.

I can't help but wonder how many city residents will be hired for the existing or new jobs the vast array of projects is expected to create, unless a more comprehensive, forceful, and sustainable training and placement pipeline is created, too.

Perhaps I'm being too quick to judge: The new Subaru and existing Campbell Soup headquarters will someday be part of a corporate campus called Knight's Crossing, which would have a stop on the long-planned Camden-Glassboro rail line as well as better connections with downtown and the neighborhoods.

It may turn out that the combination of better law enforcement and more choices in public education will persuade families to stay in or move to the city as opportunities and synergies created by the new investments get some traction.

I hope so.

To be wary of the approach the Christie administration and its Democratic allies in Camden County have undertaken on behalf of Camden is not to diminish the good intentions and the good work involved.

The health sciences center, the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, and the recently opened Rutgers Nursing and Science building, three essential components of a proposed downtown "eds and meds" corridor, seem designed to be part of the city. The nursing building even offers a bit of retail space along Federal Street, once a major shopping thoroughfare.

But I'm not sure that better design alone, however welcome, will enable the sort of publicly subsidized mega-projects that have been a hallmark of the Christie years to become deeply rooted enough to affect, much less transform, the lives of many ordinary folks in Camden.

For the city, there's irony in Amazon's predictions that a new headquarters campus — which if granted to Camden would be the city's most colossal mega-project ever — would mean 50,000 jobs.

Because Camden had nearly that many manufacturing jobs when the city's employment peaked in 1950.

The decisions to relocate or eliminate all but the small number of manufacturing jobs that remain were surely not made by the people living in Camden's rowhouse neighborhoods. Those decisions  were made by people in boardrooms and corporate headquarters, often in response to  or under the influence of policies made in places like Trenton and Washington.

These and other top-down decisions — 1960s-style "urban renewal" comes to mind — did have an enormous impact on the city, most of it negative.

So while it's fair to say Christie has been good to Camden, the fairest answer to the question of whether Christie has been good for Camden is: I hope so.