Maj. Paul Cain led the group of chatty Camden dignitaries and journalists into the immense, 8,000-square-foot indoor waterpark, complete with a lime-green waterslide rising out of a clear pool toward a 60-foot-high vaulted glass ceiling.
For a moment, the talking ceased as awestruck visitors raised their phones to snap photos of Camden's newest neighbor.
The Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, a 120,000-square-foot community center nine years in the making, officially opens Saturday on Harrison Avenue with a celebratory festival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and a ribbon-cutting at 6 p.m. There is no residency requirement to join, and memberships start at $25 a month for a family of four or $15 a month for a single.
Thursday afternoon, Cain showed the Salvation Army-run facility to Mayor Dana Redd, Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, and State Sen. Donald Norcross.
Former Eagle Garry Cobb, who is running against Norcross for Congress, also attended.
"A lot of the families come in and say, 'This is for us?' " said Cain, who oversees the center with his wife, Maj. Alma Cain. "We present this to all of you as a gift from God, a gift from the Kroc family, and a gift from the Salvation Army."
In 2004, the Salvation Army received a $1.6 billion grant from the estate of Joan Kroc, of the McDonald's fortune. Since then, 26 Kroc Centers have been built in mostly poor urban centers.
Philadelphia's Kroc Center opened four years ago on Wissahickon Avenue and has 8,600 members, up from 5,000 in its first year.
Camden received $59 million from the Kroc estate to be used partially for construction and also for an endowment. The Salvation Army raised an additional $10 million to cover remaining construction costs.
The center includes a chapel, a food pantry - which is set up like a grocery - a computer lab, black box theater, two pools, a gym, and an outdoor field and track. There are also a rock wall and a library, a reading room for seniors, and basketball courts, inside and outside.
"I'm ready to cancel my gym membership," Mayor Redd said in the second-floor fitness center, which is lined with glass overlooking the two pools.
Redd said that she was overwhelmed by the size of the building and that in a city of many dreams deferred, "this is a dream realized."
This summer both the 76ers and the energy company Holtec said they would move some operations to the Camden waterfront, lured by generous tax incentives.
Kroc's opening promises services directly catering to - and requested by - the Cramer Hill neighborhood. Before constructing the Kroc Center, the Salvation Army surveyed the neighborhood to find out what people wanted. The overwhelming response was more social services, which now occupy a fourth of the building.
A clinic, run by Cooper, operates like an urgent-care unit with an aim to cut back on unnecessary emergency-room visits. A day care will open in the spring, and the food pantry is open Monday through Friday.
Two city buses drop off directly at the center.
Nearly 600 people have signed up to be members, half of whom live in Camden.
More Camden residents are expected to sign up at the community event Saturday. Fliers have gone out to the neighborhood, and a big billboard on Route 38 advertises the $25-per-month membership cost for families. The cost is the lowest among the Kroc centers. Scholarships are also available.
On Chicago's southside, a Kroc Center opened two years ago between the medium-to-high-income town of Beverly and Roseland, a low-income neighborhood. Maj. David Harvey, who runs the center in Chicago, said its 8,000 members were split nearly evenly between both sections.
After the Salvation Army announced its plans to build, a mall followed. More important, Harvey said, crime is down 30 percent in the area and schools surrounding the facility have showed improvements in state testing.
He said the swim program was very popular and an important asset for the young African American community, which because of a frequent lack of accessible swimming programs, faces a disproportionate risk of drowning.
"Now we have swim classes, kids who want to compete. We'd love to compete against Philadelphia," Harvey said. "And Camden."
South Jersey Assemblyman Fuentes recalled when as City Council president he worked with the DEP to ready the land for the project. The department spent $26 million to rehabilitate 24 acres of the former landfill.
"This is a showcase to the state of New Jersey on how we can remediate brown-field sites," Commissioner Martin said.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Martin said, "anything and everything" was dumped in the landfill. The DEP brought in 220,000 cubic yards of clean soil (the equivalent of 88 Olympic-sized swimming pools) from Palmyra to replace the contaminated ground.
Shortly after Philadelphia's Kroc Center opened, a ShopRite opened nearby. A few fast-food chains and a dollar store have followed.
"As we talk to members who live in the neighborhood - what they tell me is it's made a huge impact," said Maj. Dennis Gensler, who heads Philadelphia's center. He said the location attracts people from Germantown, East Falls, and North Philadelphia.
Camden, like Philadelphia, hopes members will file in from all over.
"It's intended for everyone," Cain said. "Our ultimate goal is 10,000 members."