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Methadone clinic at South Jersey Port clears a hurdle

Truckers and stevedores now move pineapples, steel and cocoa beans through the Broadway Terminal in the shadow of the Walt Whitman Bridge on Camden's waterfront.

Truckers and stevedores now move pineapples, steel and cocoa beans through the Broadway Terminal in the shadow of the Walt Whitman Bridge on Camden's waterfront.

Soon, there will be a new presence on the more than 200 industrial acres of the South Jersey Port: recovering heroin addicts.

Parkside Recovery, which dispenses methadone to hundreds of addicts in downtown Camden, will move to a larger space at the port under a plan given preliminary approval by the South Jersey Port Corp. board yesterday.

The controversial move, expected to be finalized after a lease is negotiated next month, has been opposed by residents and community activists in the Waterfront South neighborhood for years. A lawsuit to block the plan is pending.

"They're supposed to be running a port," Helene Pierson, executive director of the group Heart of Camden, said of the board.

"It's about time they think about what they're doing to themselves," said Pierson, who thinks the clinic will attract a criminal element.

The relocation has been lauded by proponents of redevelopment in downtown Camden, where the clinic on Broadway near Benson Street is considered an eyesore and an obstacle to the expansion of a health campus anchored by Cooper University Hospital.

"We cannot be held hostage any longer," said Sheila Roberts, president of the Cooper Lanning Civic Association, which represents residents nearest to the existing location. "If this clinic must be in this city, this is the best possible solution."

The new location, at Broadway and Fairview Street, is about a third of a mile from the closest residence. The current clinic is down the block from a planned elementary school and next to shops.

It also is in the area where Cooper officials and city planners want to put a medical school to complement the hospital's $220 million pavilion, which opens officially tomorrow.

The clinic dispenses methadone, which helps kill the craving for heroin, and offers a range of addiction services to more than 600 clients.

The state, which funds Parkside, wants to keep the facility in the city, where a third of its clientele lives. But a methadone dispensary is rarely popular among its neighbors. At the port, much of that hassle is avoided.

The South Jersey Port Corp. is a quasi-governmental agency funded by the state. None of its board members, who are appointed by the governor, would comment on the record about the plan at yesterday's board meeting.

Gov. Corzine apparently supports the move. His state director for the Division of Addiction Services, Raquel Mazon Jeffers, told the board yesterday that the clinic was crucial to public health in Camden County, which has one of the highest rates of addiction in the state.

"It is important that we reach as many people as possible in our efforts to get people to recovery, and locating our efforts at the port will do exactly that," she said.

Charles Greene, executive director of Parkside, said Camden addicts see some of the purest heroin in the country, putting them at greater risk of overdosing.

He said he had statements from 200 clients who want a bigger facility without the leaky roof at the current state-owned building.

The new Parkside will work in conjunction with a needle-exchange program that operates around the corner from the port and serves 477 people.

Parkside plans to launch a six-day-a-week mobile methadone clinic next year that will serve East and North Camden, Jeffers said.

At the 7,500-square-foot port location, Parkside will expand its services, Greene said. There will be additional counseling, room for more clients, and a day-care center for mothers who undergo three-hour treatment sessions.

He said police would prevent the facility from becoming a loitering spot for recovering addicts and dealers looking to exploit the vulnerable.

"I'm very concerned about the image in the community, being a partner with the community," Greene said.

Absent from yesterday's board meeting were Pierson and other opponents of the move.

"We've been there for 16 straight months, and the port's going to do what the political powers tell them to do. We refuse to participate in the higher powers pitting neighborhoods against neighborhoods," Pierson said in an interview.

She plans to testify in Trenton tomorrow when the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee considers a bill to sell the current Parkside property to the city, which would flip it for redevelopment.