The first time I saw Camden's Harrison Avenue landfill, it had been closed for years. It was also on fire.
I'd been dispatched by an editor to check on a report that the grass atop the toxic tundra of buried trash was ablaze again. And so it was, on a hot afternoon in the late 1970s.
Last week, I returned to Harrison Avenue to tour the $68 million Salvation Army Kroc Center, which is on schedule for an Oct. 4 ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The project's cost includes $21 million for 34 acres of site remediation work by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Of the $59 million provided by the estate of Ray and Joan Kroc, of McDonald's fame, $27 million has been set aside to endow the center and help pay operating costs.
The resulting transformation of what for decades had been an abused, exhausted landscape is so complete, so dramatic, I'm tempted to say the center has "risen from the ashes."
But clichés are boring. Besides, if I had a buck for every Camden project I've heard proclaimed as a game-changer for the city, I'd have enough cash to change my own game, and then some.
"The hardest thing has been to get people to believe it's happening," says Salvation Army Maj. Paul Cain, the center's administrator.
Nevertheless, many have come to believe: Campbell Soup, Subaru, Wells Fargo, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and New Jersey American Water have helped raise $9.2 million, and counting, of the $10 million local match required by the Krocs.
The water company alone has contributed $1.2 million, including, just last week, a $175,000 advance on a future refund of connection fees.
"It just makes sense," spokesman Peter Eschbach says. "The only word for the center is awesome."
After seven years in Camden, Cain is well aware of the community's deep skepticism about what he calls "the next great thing." Kroc-Camden, he insists, is different.
"There hasn't been a project like this, with universal support," he says. "It hasn't been built to bring in tourists, or establish the name of Camden. It has been built for the people of the community, and the region."
"This is the 'town plaza,' Kroc fund-raising campaign manager Ben Ovadia says, standing in the center's splashy, light-laden lobby. "The black-box theater will be here. The chapel is there. And the healthy eating community kitchen is there."
There's much more: A 23,000-square-foot wellness clinic, a library, a senior center (with a fireplace), and plenty of space for bridge and other table games.
The community kitchen will host cooking classes, and the food pantry will offer clients nutrition counseling as well as a chance to select their own items.
A gigantic water park will include a play pool with a beach and an eight-lane competition pool. "We'll have 30 lifeguards working here," Ovadia notes.
The field house, meanwhile, will offer facilities equivalent to those of an NCAA regulation basketball court. There will be a climbing wall, a fitness center, and educational, spiritual, and human services programs.
Kroc-Camden expects to attract 350,000 visits a year. Annual memberships - starting at $200 for a family of four, with no residency requirement - will be the lowest of all 26 Kroc centers nationwide.
Perhaps sweetest of all, the center will create close to 150 jobs. Between 40 and 50 of those will be full-time.
"What's going to change lives are the staff and the volunteers, the coaches and trainers and all the people working with the kids," Cain says. "The building is a tool."
I like the metaphor, which is much more apt than the tired one I was toying with earlier. The Kroc Center could well be a transformative tool - but only if the people of Camden, and the region, use it.
Key Features of Kroc Center
foot wellness clinic
Senior center, with fireplace
Water park, including a play pool and an eight-lane competition pool
Fieldhouse with facilities equivalent to those of an NCAA regulation basketball court