Kris Kolluri, CEO-select of Camden's most ambitious economic development organization, says he vividly recalls the first time we spoke. It was 2015 and a brand-new, locally owned restaurant called Newtown Kitchen was being forced to relocate due to an "eds and meds" project.
Says Kolluri, who starts his Cooper's Ferry Partnership job on Jan. 15: "You gave me an earful."
So I suppose it's only fair that fans of the 48-year-old Haddonfield father of two give me an earful as well.
"Kris is an expert in economic development, infrastructure, and financing. He knows how to make things work," says Cooper's Ferry board member Susan Bass Levin.
"He has really proven himself," Camden Redevelopment Agency vice chairwoman Sheila Davis says. "Kris reaches out, he asks: 'How will this impact the community? How can we do this as a partnership? How do we hire local?' That's a rarity."
Says Frank Moran, who will be sworn in as Camden's new mayor Jan. 1: "Kris is respected throughout the state. He understands the needs of our residents. And I look forward to working with him."
When Kolluri and I had that first chat, the Georgetown Law grad was CEO of the Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors, a new entity as potentially unwieldy as its name.
The board was concocted from the wreckage of a terrible, if bipartisan, plan to have Rowan absorb Rutgers-Camden. Kolluri, who had run the state's Department of Transportation and its Schools Development Authority, was tapped — or as one headline put it, "Rutgers-Rowan board hires $275K politically connected CEO without a search" — to make the new thing function.
In the eyes of many around town, Kolluri has done just that.
"Kris knows how to collaborate," Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Phoebe Haddon says. "He really thinks about how the project being discussed can benefit everyone at the table."
Says Khai Tran, CEO of Waterfront Ventures, which seeks to expand the city's fledgling tech community: "Kris is very aggressive at finding resources, pulling the strings he has to pull, and pushing a project forward to completion."
Ground was broken two months ago for a $70 million Rutgers-Rowan Health Sciences building on a site formerly occupied by Newtown Kitchen and other small businesses. And last week, it was announced that Kolluri would replace the well-regarded Anthony Perno at the helm of Cooper's Ferry, a nonprofit organization created three decades ago to redevelop the downtown waterfront.
The partnership has long since become a redevelopment engine in the neighborhoods as well, collaborating with local nonprofits to rehab houses and build parks. "It's a citywide initiative to benefit the community, not the developer — to make sure the amenities aren't just in the downtown," says Kolluri.
Born to a middle-class family in Hyderabad, India, Kolluri immigrated to the United States with his parents in the mid-1980s. They had sold all of their possessions and arrived with just $2,000; he went on to graduate from Eastern High School in Voorhees and earn his B.S. in marketing from Rutgers-Camden in 1991.
Like me, Kolluri believes Camden is having a moment.
But I have reservations about the taxpayer-subsidized megaprojects rising downtown and on the waterfront.
I see them as too much like the top-down "urban renewal" strategy that levelled most of downtown beginning in the 1960s, leaving only a few scattered segments of walkable streetscape and a handful or two of vintage buildings of the sort so prized by young urbanists.
At the same time grandiose urban renewal schemes chewed away the heart of downtown, other initiatives -- arising not from the people in Camden's rowhouse neighborhoods but the titans of industry and business in often faraway executive suites -- cost the city thousands of good-paying jobs.
Kolluri sees the current profusion of cranes in Camden as evidence that a critical mass of catalysts has been reached at last to create jobs and encourage people and businesses to choose the city. And he notes that lessons have been learned about integrating new development into the existing urban fabric.
"There is [an] alignment many have been waiting for," he says, citing local leaders Haddon, Moran, and others.
"Collectively, we have one objective," Kolluri continues. "We want to make sure the trajectory of this city is not compromised … and that the integrity of the neighborhoods is not compromised."
I interview him in his chilly corner office at the Florio Center for Public Service at Second and Federal Streets. It offers a great view of impressive new developments such as the 76ers Training Complex, believe-it-when-you-see-it projects like the "Radio Lofts" condos, and wide-open spaces.
It's a vista primarily created by private agencies such as Cooper's Ferry and decision-makers who, like Kolluri, don't live in Camden. They are viewed by many residents as outsiders beholden to politicians in Trenton and power brokers closer to home, such as Democratic leader George E. Norcross III.
"Do you feel like George is your boss?" I ask Kolluri.
"No," he says. "The way I view George Norcross is, he has been not only a thought leader but someone who is willing to invest his own resources in the city. … He has been a powerful advocate for Camden."
Kolluri also has an answer ready when I ask him about the controversial move of the privately run downtown methadone clinic to Sixth Street and Atlantic Avenue in the city's Waterfront South section.
Clearing the way for another "eds and meds" project, the Rowan-Rutgers board under his leadership has purchased the clinic site at Fifth and Market. Residents and others near the site of the proposed new facility fear it will be a worse nuisance than it was downtown.
"Our legal role in this was to buy the property, [not] to tell them where to go," says Kolluri.
Newtown Kitchen, meanwhile, has morphed into a new project, with new owners. Developer and restaurateur Damon Pennington is jazzed about both Signature 315, which is expected to open in the spring as the first in a complex of restaurants along Market Street, and Kolluri's new role, which he calls "fantastic."
Spend any time with Kolluri and it's clear the Camden story — rise, fall, decades of desperation, and now, just maybe, hope — genuinely has gotten to him. The tough old town does have a way of doing that.
"We want to provide people in this city with an opportunity to succeed," he says.