Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd created a "one-stop" growth team last year to try to attract businesses and development to increase the city's low tax base - $22.7 million for the $173 million 2011 budget.
Despite Redd's proclamation last week in her "State of the City" address that the ombudsman and Business Growth and Development Team - comprised of city planning, development, code and legal officials, and nonprofit developers from the Cooper's Ferry Partnership - had made about 200 contacts, only a few projects have come to fruition.
The red tape in City Hall has not gone away, prospective developers said.
They appreciated meeting directly with officials involved with city projects, they said, but it had not eased - or increased the pace - of the heavily bureaucratic process.
"I met with them and saw all the paperwork and bull- you have to go through, and I said, 'I don't know if I want to do this,' " said John Yingling, a restaurant owner based in Provincetown, Mass., who wants to locate a hip bistro two blocks from the soon-to-open Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.
Many municipalities require multiple board approvals and lots of paperwork of new businesses, Yingling acknowledged. Camden's particular frustration, interested entrepreneurs say, is dealing with the amount of vacant land that cannot be immediately sold to an interested party because of absentee property owners.
Yingling, for example, identified 525 Broadway as the site for his proposed bistro, with outdoor seating and parking that stretches back to Williams Street.
The owner of the vacant lot next to the current structure is listed as BNA Corp. of Collingswood, but neither the city nor Yingling has been able to contact such a corporation or a person responsible for the parcel. That lack of information, coupled with the city's demand that Yingling get an appraisal of the property and a pro-forma budget, has put the project on hold, Yingling said Monday from his winter home in Jamaica.
Had the land had a structure on it - even a decrepit one - the city could have invoked the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act to try to acquire the parcel through eminent domain and turn it over to Yingling.
"It's extremely frustrating," said the city's ombudsman, Vince Basara. "We run into this a lot."
The abandoned properties act, which Redd last year tasked the development team to use, has helped other developers acquire properties for redevelopment. In fact, the few successful projects to come through the new team were ones that acquired property with the act.
Cramer Hill Community Development Corp., for example, has made progress acquiring 18 of the 20 homes it initially presented to the team in April as a part of a residential rehabilitation project. Executive director Manny Delgado said one of the last steps - property appraisal - is expected to be finished this week.
Other successful projects include the acquisition of the Samuel Cooper House (also done by Delgado) and the expansion of Reliance Medical Center in the 600 block of Broadway.
When the development team initially was announced, city officials said the team would meet weekly. But minutes of recent team meetings report monthly gatherings of about 45 minutes each, with only one project discussion or presentation at best.
Since August, the team has tried to brainstorm ideas on sections of the city's property-maintenance code that need updates, as well as implementing a charter-school policy. No action had been taken as of the January minutes.
Projects presented last summer have either fallen through or have stalled for various reasons.
RPM Development, a North Jersey company that owns more than 100 homes in Fairview, proposed a rehabilitation in July of Crescent Gardens, a 240-unit complex in Fairview, and applied for a "Payment in Lieu of Taxes."
The company is still waiting for a decision on the PILOT, which is a condition of other financing of the project, before it will move forward, said company vice president Kevin Kavanaugh.
A grocery store plan for North Camden was revived about a year ago when nonprofit human-services agency Respond Inc.'s Wilbert Mitchell and civic group Save Our Waterfront's Ron Sadler joined forces in an attempt to bring a Save-a-Lot to the Seventh and Linden block, which would be next to the proposed Camden Community Charter School. Both have sought the development's team help in gaining site control.
The Camden Redevelopment Agency owns the properties at both sites, but the Delaware River Port Authority is listed as the designated developer. For the grocery and school projects to move forward, the CRA needs to terminate the DRPA's affiliation and redesignate a developer for each site.
"Like everything in Camden, it's taking its sweet time," Sadler said.
CRA executive director Saundra Ross Johnson said the projects were simply going through the process every other project has to go through.
There are also some steps developers need to take to be approved for a project that are out of the city's control, Basara said.
For example, a proposal for a fuel station near the South Jersey Port Corp. cannot proceed without federal approval. Another charter school, AAA Academy for Children, needs state Department of Education approval before moving forward with development plans.
Some entrepreneurs are deciding whether to commit to Camden's intricate approval process.
"When I was a kid, there were communities, and now that's coming back," said Yingling, a 1966 Camden High graduate. "I'm 63. At my age would I rather just retire? Restaurants are hard work."