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End is near for Camden's Field of Dreams with new waterfront plan

The minor league Campbell's Field would be razed and replaced with an athletic complex for multiple sports under a joint project between the city and Rutgers-Camden.

Camden Riversharks field manager Joe Ferguson walks on Campbell’s Field with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in the background in Camden, N.J., on Thursday, May 3, 2007.
Camden Riversharks field manager Joe Ferguson walks on Campbell’s Field with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in the background in Camden, N.J., on Thursday, May 3, 2007.Read moreYong Kim / Staff Photographer

When Campbell's Field opened at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge in 2001, there were high hopes the picturesque ballpark would draw thousands of visitors to Camden and developers eager to invest millions more on the waterfront.

The dreams were never realized. After playing there for 15 years, the Camden Riversharks, the independent professional baseball team that was the face of the project, fell on hard financial times and ceased operations in 2015. The stadium has been vacant since then, amid speculation about what will happen with the prime eight-acre site.

The end of the road is drawing near for the stadium, under a $15 million plan by the city and Rutgers-Camden to purchase the stadium from Camden County, raze the stadium, and replace it with a sports complex. It would mark the end of a costly and failed experiment in urban renewal in the city.

The Rutgers Board of Governors is expected to consider a resolution at a meeting Thursday afternoon in Camden to allocate $7.5 million for the project. The city must then seek approval from the state Local Finance Board to seek a bond for $7.5 million for the balance of the funding needed, said city spokesman Vince Basara.

"We're all going to miss Campbell's Field," Basara said Wednesday. "Unfortunately, we're dealing with the reality that the stadium is underutilized and is in disrepair. Now we have an opportunity to move on and redevelop the site."

Under the plan, the city and Rutgers-Camden would purchase the stadium from Camden County, Basara said. The athletic complex would be maintained and operated by Rutgers, he said.

Bailing out the stadium could be a risky gamble for the city, which could be left on the hook for millions.

Longtime Camden resident and activist Kelly Francis questioned the plans by the city, which has relied on state bailouts to manage its finances.

"It's a complete waste of resources," Francis said. "We've been bamboozled too many times in this city. Everything turns out to be a bust."

Basara said the city would seek to recoup the $7.5 million it would put into the deal by applying for public funds through grants from the state's Green Acres program and Environmental Infrastructure Trust.

The Camden County Improvement Authority purchased the 6,400-seat stadium in 2015 for $3.5 million just ahead of foreclosure to maintain control of the land, which offers a spectacular view of the Philadelphia skyline. The county still owes $3.3 million on a bond. It collects about $100,000 annually from a Rutgers lease and other events, but pays $300,000 a year in outlay, said spokesman Dan Keashen.

The state spent about $20 million to build the stadium and many hoped the stadium would be a catalyst for the waterfront where the major attractions were the Adventure Aquarium and the Susquehanna Bank Center. The team, however, had few winning seasons, with about 3,100 people attending games on average, and after only a few years was struggling to stay afloat. The team ceased operations after it could not reach an agreement on lease terms with the county, the ballpark's owner.

Efforts to replace the Riversharks with a Major League-affiliated team fell short. Bringing in a Major League Baseball team playing at the single-A level that typically uses a stadium that size would have required approval from the Phillies because Camden County is within the Phillies' territory.

At a meeting last month with local business leaders, George E. Norcross III, chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper University Health Care, who had long been dubious that the stadium would be an adequate waterfront stimulus, predicted that it would be demolished. He said it would be replaced with "world-class" athletic fields.

The vicinity of the stadium is considered prime real estate. Currently, a $1 billion development project is underway near the stadium on the waterfront by Liberty Property Trust of Philadelphia.

Details of the plan to replace the stadium, which would be completed in phases, were sketchy on Wednesday. The new complex would likely be used by the Rutgers-Camden NCAA Division III baseball team, which currently leases Campbell's Field for practices and games, and city youth organizations, Basara said. The complex may include fields for field hockey, lacrosse, and soccer.

"There will be an opportunity for one of the nicest fields in all of South Jersey," Keashen said.

A person closely involved with the project but not authorized to discuss it said the new facilities would be used for year-round sports. The complex expects to charge a fee to allow outside entities to use the facilities, the source said. Camden youth groups, such as Little League teams, would not be charged.

Officials could not provide a timeline for the plan, but said it likely would be completed in phases over several months pending approvals by city, county, and state officials. The hope, Basara says, is to have the new sports complex open for the 2019 college baseball season.

Staff writer Allison Steele contributed to this article.