People say you have to spend money to make money, but that doesn't make it the best economic development strategy. Too much can be spent for too little, which is what Camden must avoid.
South Jersey's largest city is too poor to lure businesses, so the state is its proxy. Last year, it gave away $630 million in tax breaks for projects in Camden, the Associated Press reported, or more than a quarter of the $2 billion in tax incentives issued by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority since last year.
Given the failure of previous efforts to turn Camden around, it's hard to believe enough jobs will be created to justify the tax breaks. A $175 million bailout in 2002 gave the state control of Camden for seven years, but the takeover did little to improve the city fiscally. Despite waterfront improvements, most neighborhoods experienced few if any related changes.
That has some Camden residents worried that this latest infusion of economic development incentives will change little in their neighborhoods while benefiting a familiar cast of powerful South Jersey politicians and their friends, including longtime Democratic machinator George Norcross.
Norcross is on the board of Holtec, an Evesham nuclear equipment manufacturer due to get $260 million in tax credits to build a plant in Camden. Norcross' brother Philip, an attorney, represented the Philadelphia 76ers in talks that yielded $82 million in breaks for a practice facility in Camden.
A particularly disturbing element of New Jersey's tax- breaks allows companies to sell any excess above their actual tax bill to another firm that can then lower its taxes, too. It isn't economic development if the companies buying tax credits are under no obligation to create jobs.
Along with doling out $5.2 billion in tax credits and subsidies since 2010, Gov. Christie has been cutting business taxes. The cuts will cost New Jersey an estimated $2 billion in lost revenue by June 2016. That's money that won't be available to meet the state's pension obligations or pay for transportation, education, and other needs. The reductions have done little to lower the unemployment rate, which, at 6.2 percent, remains above the national level.
Parts of Camden are showing signs of emerging from poverty. You can feel the energy on the waterfront and on the Rutgers University and Cooper University Hospital campuses, where development has occurred. But that energy is missing from neighborhoods still suffering from a lack of jobs. Handing out tax breaks based on who knows whom isn't the way to help them.