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Camden residents worry about a drug clinic moving to their neighborhood. A Shore town did, too -- until it actually happened

When a drug-treatment clinic moved into Pleasantville last year, officials fought it. But since then, few problems have materialized.

Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle fought hard to stop a drug-treatment clinic from coming to his city. He and his constituents feared that if the John Brooks Recovery Center moved from Atlantic City into the end of a strip mall off the Black Horse Pike, the methadone dispensary would attract loiterers and problems.

"Atlantic City wanted it out of their tourism district, which I understand," Tweedle said. "My concern was, Why would you think I would want it in my business district?"

The city's planning board voted it down, a decision later overturned in Superior Court. But since the Pleasantville clinic opened in June, Tweedle said he's heard few complaints.

"They've done a phenomenal job," he said in a recent interview. "You don't really know they're there."

As Camden officials move forward on plans to relocate a methadone clinic from the heart of the city's downtown to a semi-industrial section of Bergen Square about a mile away, the proposal has been met with anger from those who live and work nearby.

That comes as no surprise to Alan Oberman, chief executive officer of Pleasantville's John Brooks Recovery Center.

"Everyone wants to do something about the heroin problem," he said. "Nobody wants it near where they live."

The Urban Treatment Center in Camden is one of 34 facilities in the state that treat opioid addiction with methadone and other medication-based treatments.

The Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors plans to buy the parcel at Fifth and Market Streets from Camden Recovery Holdings, the owner of the clinic. The corner, which is the planned site for the Rutgers business school, has for years drawn people who loiter outside and sit in the park across the street in front of City Hall.

This month the clinic's move was approved by the city's zoning board, which concluded in a contentious meeting that no variance was needed for the site. The matter is expected to go to the planning board in the coming months.

The proposed site near Sixth and Atlantic Avenue is near several social service agencies, and an attorney representing the company has said the new facility will be gated and staffed with security officers. If the move is approved by the city, the board would take over the property by the end of next year.

Much of the concern has come from staff and members of the Neighborhood Center, a nonprofit group that serves children and teens in a building about half a mile from the site. Vedra Chandler, associate director of the center, said her group's fears stem from more than knee-jerk opposition.

"There are well-run clinics that provide quality treatment and care," she said, citing a clinic that operates nearby in Pennsauken. "It's not that we don't think treatment is needed. It's that we don't have any indication that we're dealing with the kind of ownership that runs a tight ship. And that it's now being pushed into a neighborhood that's more vulnerable and less visible."

After the zoning meeting, Chandler said, the clinic's attorney reached out to open a conversation about the plans -- a step she said she finds encouraging.

Some Camden residents question the logic of locating a drug treatment center near Broadway, one of the city's notorious drug corridors, and ask why the city must bear the burden of helping patients who come from the suburbs. The clinic treats about 1,000 patients per day, two-thirds of whom are from outside of Camden.

Before the John Brooks center moved, many of its patients also came from outside of Atlantic City, Oberman said. So in addition to building the new facility in Pleasantville, John Brooks also opened a smaller center elsewhere in Atlantic City for local residents. The clinics treat about 500 and 300 residents daily, respectively.

Pleasantville's planning board voted unanimously against the proposal in 2014, citing concerns from residents. The decision was ultimately overturned by a court that deemed it a permitted use for the site.

At that point, the mayor partnered with the organization.

"I more or less embraced the idea of it being there," Tweedle said. "If you can't beat them, join them."

Oberman said the transition was smoother than some expected.

"There were a lot of concerns, but really none of them have materialized," he said. "It's nothing like what people were worried about."