Market Gourmet wasn't just a deli when it opened in downtown Camden seven years ago. To hear South Jersey politicians tell it, the sandwich shop on the ground floor of the Victor Lofts apartments was a harbinger of the elusive revitalization that had been promised to the city's residents for decades.
Then-mayor Dana Redd predicted jobs would follow. U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, then a state senator, said at the time that the opening proved "there are business opportunities waiting to be filled" in the waterfront neighborhood.
The fanfare was premature, said Zack Duz, who owned the store. For a while, business was slow. But not anymore.
Duz now owns a pizzeria and fast-casual Mexican restaurant next to the deli, staffed almost entirely by Camden residents. He'd like to open a third restaurant in the development under construction down the street on the waterfront, something new to offer the hundreds of office workers who flow into Camden each day, and the approximately 700 more who will follow once the American Water company moves to town this fall.
"The people are here already," said Duz, who recently sold Market Gourmet. "When we first got here, not so much. People didn't want to come to Camden. There's no comparison, then and now."
A handful of new establishments in downtown Camden could also tap into the growing workforce: Vietnamese restaurant Pho House and Peace of Cake, a bakery and sandwich shop, both opened less than a year ago. This month, city leaders and members of Cooper's Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit that oversees redevelopment in Camden, launched a summer pop-up food court in front of City Hall. It sells sandwiches, salads, and desserts prepared by Cathedral Kitchen and Respond Bakery, both local nonprofits with culinary training programs.
"If we can get more income, we can train more students," said Wilbert Mitchell, executive director of Respond, Inc.
The 2013 Economic Opportunity Act, which authorized the broad use of state tax incentives to lure businesses to Camden, has led many companies to move to the city. The law was championed by Norcross, a South Jersey Democrat, as well as by Redd, who was Camden's mayor for eight years until she left office in January.
The millions in tax credits have brought hundreds of employees into Camden, including the Philadelphia 76ers, energy company Holtec International, marketing company Webimax, and Subaru of America, which opened a new headquarters off the Admiral Wilson Boulevard last month. American Water's 220,000-square-foot facility is the first piece of a $1 billion waterfront-development project that will include retail, housing, and offices for several South Jersey companies, including the insurance brokerage led by Democratic power player George E. Norcross III.
Critics have argued that the incentive program simply relocates existing jobs — in some cases, from only a few miles away — at a high cost to taxpayers. But local leaders have said the daytime population will boost the economy because workers will run errands in the city, eat lunch there, or stay for happy-hour drinks.
"People want a dry cleaner, a coffee shop, a beer garden, and they want lunch," said Kris Kolluri, CEO of Cooper's Ferry. "Without amenities, you don't get people."
The development in downtown Camden remains a point of contention among city residents, some of whom worry that the focus on the commercial district will come at the expense of existing businesses, like the thriving Federal Street corridor in East Camden that was built by the city's immigrant community.
The lunch shops at Roosevelt Plaza Park, which operate out of refurbished shipping containers, were fully funded by $500,000 from the Urban Enterprise Zone, a state program designed to create jobs in cities. Asked how the city is encouraging other small business development, Camden Mayor Frank Moran did not mention specific initiatives.
Kolluri said Cooper's Ferry, which has often launched community programs on behalf of the city, is looking at ways to bring local food to the new offices, such as a truck to host a rotation of restaurants. He said representatives from American Water asked for a list of Camden restaurants, and that a new bike-share program will encourage exploration.
Business in downtown Camden is still a gamble. Hank's, a Market Street mainstay for decades, closed in 2010, reopened, and closed again. Cooper River Distillers, popular among the Rutgers University-Camden crowd for its tastings, closed in April after four years. Duz, owner of Market Street Pizzeria and Fresh Mex, said that even now, opening a restaurant on the waterfront wouldn't be a quick moneymaker.
"It wouldn't be a good business idea for one year, two years," Duz said. "It will take time, because still, after 5 p.m., no one's here."
But Wanda Lozada, who opened Peace of Cake on Sixth Street last June, said her shop has done well. A former Cooper Hospital nurse, Lozada worked with the Latin American Economic Development Association, which has assisted untold numbers of small business owners in Camden. Right away she got customers from City Hall and City Invincible, an architecture firm that moved to town last year.
"Word of mouth has been incredible," she said. "Marketing to locals is the next step."
Lozada moved from Chicago after spending time in Camden on a mission trip with the New Life Covenant Church. She hires local and hopes to partner with local schools on a mentoring program in the culinary arts.
Two years ago, Camden businessman Damon Pennington announced he would open two restaurants downtown — plans that stalled as his ambitions grew and he purchased real estate for additional businesses. He is now renovating several properties on Market Street, where he hopes to open a beer garden this summer, followed by a restaurant this fall.
"There's eyes on Camden now," Pennington said. "That's a good thing, but it means this has to be done right. I want people not only to have great food and drinks, but a cool experience. Otherwise, they might come once but they won't come back."