The Inquirer's recent series on efforts to revitalize Camden suggested that they have failed. While informative, the series offered only a snapshot of conditions in the impoverished city. A broader view reveals a city in transition, with great progress having been made through prudent state investments.
Many Delaware Valley residents established their roots in Camden and remember when the city was the economic engine of South Jersey. There were plentiful jobs to support strong and diverse communities, all conveniently situated within nine square miles - "a city invincible," as Walt Whitman once described his last hometown.
Then, years of neglect, poor urban planning, and economic decline devastated the city's infrastructure. Admiral Wilson Boulevard and Route 676 divided neighborhoods to accommodate suburban commuters. Government facilities cut residents off from the magnificent waterfront. No money was invested in the antiquated water and sewer lines. Homes were constructed only for low-income residents, funded by suburban towns looking to unload their court-mandated affordable-housing quotas. Manufacturers closed shop or relocated, along with their jobs.
Over the years, there have been many good-faith attempts to rebuild Camden. In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy visited Camden and pledged to rebuild it. Eight years later, riots destroyed much of the remaining business districts. Despite promises of state and federal assistance, the damage remained, and residents fled.
In 1992, Gov. Jim Florio introduced the Camden Initiative to improve the city's infrastructure and create jobs with state funds. A year later, it was ditched by a Whitman administration looking to cut state spending. That was followed by the imprisonment of Camden's mayor, and the decline continued.
In 2002, Gov. Jim McGreevey worked with legislators from both sides of the aisle to develop a new Camden revitalization plan, the Municipal Recovery Act. It gave the city $175 million in state funds, primarily for capital improvements, and instituted direct state supervision. There was broad acceptance of the concept.
No one who supported the act thought $175 million alone could cure all of the city's problems. In fact, reports identified more than $1 billion in infrastructure needs. The primary intent was to use the money to build on strengths, transforming a postindustrial city into a center for education and medicine, driven by so-called anchor institutions. The plan was also meant to build up the waterfront, neighborhoods, and transportation centers with the hope that private-sector development would take hold in the years to come.
Seven years later, we can see the fruits of these investments. Camden has a vibrant waterfront drawing millions of visitors to entertainment venues that replaced dilapidated buildings. Ironically, The Inquirer's Editorial Board strongly advocated the use of public funds to build the city's aquarium, which houses the hippos ridiculed in the recent series.
The waterfront successes led private investors such as Susquehanna Bank and developer Carl Dranoff to build in Camden. Rutgers expanded its campus, with plans to build dormitories. Perhaps the most significant development will be the demolition of Riverfront State Prison to make way for private development.
The revitalization money was also used to strengthen the city's economic anchors. Cooper University Hospital, Camden's largest employer, expanded its facilities, resulting in more jobs and better health care. Soon, it will open a medical school in conjunction with Rowan University. The state also rebuilt roads to support Campbell Soup's construction of a new world headquarters, helping to keep the corporate giant in the city it has called home for generations.
There was substantial investment in Camden's communities as well. More than 2,500 new homes and 1,100 new jobs can be attributed to Municipal Recovery Act investments - a remarkable accomplishment in an economic recession.
The act was a catalyst for change, not a cure for all problems. It took years for Camden to fall into decline, and it will take years to bring the city back to greatness. Thanks in part to the revitalization effort, there is a sense that things are changing for the better.