Among those who say the Camden recovery forgot about them, fingers often point to the recovery-funded expansion and privatization of the waterfront aquarium.

Once it was privatized, the aquarium ended a program that gave residents free admission in January and February so they could view a bit of the world beyond their decaying city. Instead, the aquarium said, it would admit for free Camden fourth graders who come with their schools.

"It was a philosophical change," said Greg Charbeneau, the aquarium's executive director. "We really wanted to target the fourth graders. They're at the ripe age of being a dry sponge in a bucket of water."

But from April 2008 to April 2009, the city schools paid $1,740 for fourth-grade visits, district records show. All fourth-grade classes were charged. Until contacted by a reporter, school officials didn't know free admission was available.

"If it was, there would be some record of it," said Sara Davis, school board president.

Charbeneau said the aquarium issued a news release and informed the Camden chief operating officer and school board. "In terms of them actually taking us up on the offer, it's up to them, really," he said.

He said the aquarium is now offering a refund or free admission for classes that paid last year.

From February 2008 to March 2009, the Camden school district spent $18,000 for 2,000 students of all ages to go to their hometown aquarium, even as its students went to the National Aquarium in Baltimore free during that same time.

Privatization also meant an end to funds for CAUSE - Camden Aquarium Urban Science Enrichment - made up of 35 Camden high school students trained as paid aquatic-science educators. One hundred percent of CAUSE students have graduated from high school, and 95 percent have gone to college.

The aquarium stopped allowing CAUSE's Camden teenagers to work the aquarium floor teaching guests, usually suburban parents and their children, about the fish.

"You are this black girl from Camden and you have people coming from all over the place asking you questions about what you know," said Regina Fitch, 27, who worked for CAUSE in the 1990s. Fitch credits CAUSE mentors with providing discipline and leading her into her current job at a nonprofit in Newark. It angers her that a private company has changed the program.

Charbeneau denies that the aquarium has cut itself off from the community, and says the Adventure Aquarium simply changed the "guest experience," replacing the teens with biologists. He notes that rent and utilities for the nonprofit that operates CAUSE are free, and that students still may use the aquarium as a "living classroom."

Charbeneau said the aquarium had donated more than $100,000 in cash and in-kind gifts to Camden-related nonprofits and schools since privatization. And last spring, he said, Adventure Aquarium began a program distributing what it says will be annual scholarships of up to $5,000 for learning materials, a fish tank, and a free visit for one public school in Camden.

"We're in the business of being a community treasure," Charbeneau said. "We're not in the business of ripping people off. We're not in the old Camden days."

- Matt Katz