After a raucous meeting that went into the wee hours yesterday morning, the Camden planning board voted, 3-2, to approve the demolition of the Sears building on Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
The demolition approval clears a big hurdle for Campbell Soup Co., which wants the land to expand its headquarters and build a $72 million office park that might attract jobs to Camden.
But the board's decision - with one abstention and two members who left before the vote - angered some of the 40 people who spoke. At least two, Camden activist Frank Fulbrook and Sears building owner Mark Willis, vowed to block the demolition by going to court if Campbell began moving forward with its plans.
The planning board's authorization is still subject to approval of the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, Theodore Z. Davis, as well as the Historic Sites Council, a citizens body that reports to the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Davis has already given a nod to the Campbell project. Gov. Corzine also supports it.
The decision on whether to raze the 1920s-era Sears building, a National Historic Landmark, has been a difficult one. Campbell has said it needs the space, and might have to pull its headquarters out of Camden without the land. The building is vacant.
Campbell Soup, founded in Camden nearly 140 years ago, still plays a major role in the city's economy. The company pays $1.3 million annually in lieu of taxes, donates more than $1 million to local charities, and provides 1,700 jobs, though critics complain that few are held by Camden residents.
Initially, board member Christine Seitz, a member of the Historical Preservation Commission that voted, 5-0, last week against the demolition, put forward a motion to again deny razing the building.
"We can have both history and progress," Seitz said. But the motion failed.
When board member Robin Johnson spoke, stating that the Sears building was the past and the Campbell project the future, those of board still left at the table voted, 3-2, in favor of demolition.