Lured by a lucrative $260 million tax incentive dangled by New Jersey to relocate to Camden, Holtec International last year joined a growing wave of companies that pulled up stakes and moved their businesses to the waterfront.
The Grow New Jersey program was touted as a way to entice companies to invest in the struggling city, create jobs, and rebuild the sluggish economy. Since 2013, the state has doled out $1.5 billion worth of tax credits that attracted Holtec, Subaru of America, Lockheed Martin, and the 76ers to the once dormant waterfront and other parts of the city — with few strings attached.
But now the program, which has produced an explosion of business in Camden's waterfront and elsewhere, is under new scrutiny. Critics have long contended that the state deals were too generous and offered little to ease Camden's high unemployment.
Holtec CEO Krishna "Kris" Singh rekindled the debate after telling a New Jersey business publication in an interview published this week that it was difficult to find employees in Camden and that many in the city's workforce "don't show up to work" and "some get into drugs." His comments sparked outrage and protests Friday and raised questions about the tax-credit program.
In a statement Friday, Singh tried to clarify his remarks. He said "certain out-of-text excerpts" misrepresented "both the tone and the substance of the interview."
"I am sorry that my misconstrued comments may have offended or slighted/disrespected some people," Singh said in the statement. "My complete comments were not reported, but even if they were, I was perhaps not as articulate as I could have been while I was discussing my deep commitment to the City of Camden and its residents."
Critics say his comments expose the shortcomings of public subsidies for the redevelopment projects in Camden and perceptions of its residents.
"We demand an apology for his disrespectful, racially biased, untrue statements," said Ronsha Dickerson as about 50 members of the Camden Parent Union, South Jersey Women for Progressive Change, and other organizations stood behind her during a protest across from the company's headquarters, at 1 Holtec Dr. Camden, which has about 76,000 residents, is 48 percent Hispanic and 42 percent African American.
At a hastily arranged news conference, Camden Mayor Frank Moran and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, (D. N.J,) and a contingent of local officials, condemned Singh's comments and announced plans for a summit on jobs and career training for the city. The summit, titled "Camden Working" and planned for Wednesday, would include the area's largest employers, community leaders, and stakeholders. They promised to draft agreements between the city and more than two dozen companies that have received large tax breaks to relocate in Camden.
Critics of the tax breaks have argued from the outset that many of the new jobs would not go to needy Camden residents, but to people in the surrounding suburbs.
In an interview later, Norcross, who championed the Grow Jersey law as a state senator, said state lawmakers did not consider requiring companies that receive tax credits to reach "community-benefits agreements" with the city. He said he didn't know why hiring or training stipulations were not put in place.
"Hindsight is always 20/20," Norcross said. "I don't recall that conversation [about community-benefits agreements] ever being brought up."
The Grow New Jersey law was amended in 2013 to open South Jersey to expanded investment and signed by then-Gov. Chris Christie. It rewards companies with tax credits that typically are contingent on the companies' making capital investments and retaining or creating jobs.
Holtec, which moved from Marlton to Camden last year, was one of the latest in a long line of companies that jumped on the offer of tax incentives. The state Economic Development Authority has given 29 companies a total of $1.5 billion in state tax credits to save or create 5,646 jobs, which equals $269,000 per job. Subaru, which moved its headquarters from Cherry Hill, received $118 million in tax breaks, and the Sixers received $82 million in incentives.
Holtec is getting $658,228 in tax credits per job saved or created, the highest on the list. Its $320 million seven-story glass corporate office and vast manufacturing plant have views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Philadelphia skyline.
Singh's comments, published in ROI New Jersey Magazine, touched a nerve and were widely condemned by city officials and activists. Norcross called the statements "inappropriate."
>>Read More: Camden's Holtec draws rebuke and sympathy
In the magazine interview, Singh spoke about the difficulty of hiring in Camden: "People don't have the skills," said Singh, whose company had a ribbon-cutting ceremony last September for a manufacturing facility and design center to make components for a small nuclear reactor. He told the publication he was confounded by hires who "don't show up to work."
He said the Camden plant is "costing us millions right now."
"They can't stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven't done it, and they didn't see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it's difficult."
Singh told the Inquirer and Daily News Thursday that 30 to 50 Camden residents are currently employed at the facility. In the statement Friday, he said the company faces "an uphill battle in finding workers in the city," but remains committed to recruiting Camden residents.
"We came to Camden to help people whose plight has been long ignored by the larger society," Singh said. "We remain resolute in our mission to do our share in uplifting the city."
Norcross said his comments in the ROI article about generational poverty were also misconstrued and city officials issued statements defending him. Some believed Norcross compared Camden residents to children by saying:
"When you stop to think about it, I say children are that one asset that you can't blame them for anything," he said. "Same thing goes for people who have not had a structure that taught them."
That was not the case, Norcross said. "It was absolutely out of context."
Outside the Holtec headquarters, protesters called on city officials to enter into a "community-benefits agreement" with Holtec International and other corporations that get tax credit incentives to relocate. They want stipulations that would require hiring and training programs and attracting city residents.
According to the state Economic Development Authority, such contracts are not required.
"There's nothing in place to make [the companies] do anything for the city," Troy Oglesby, an activist who grew up in Camden, said before the rally.
City spokesman Vince Basara said there is a pending agreement, but he could not offer a timeline for approval.
"As a newly elected mayor … I will hold every corporation that has come into the city and has received some sort of incentive or another to high standards, Moran said.