Wednesday, January 26, 2011

We've Rebuilt Kabul - Let's Rebuild Camden

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

Mention Camden and what comes to mind? People immediately think of a crime-ridden city in dire poverty with no hope of rebounding.

The city is at a crossroads. The troubled city has had to lay off nearly half its cops, a third of its firefighters and scores of other workers. Once a mecca for high-tech jobs in South Jersey, Camden has been impacted by crime, the Bush recession, and a shrinking tax base. Forty percent of Camden residents eke out their existence from below the poverty line, and homicides and other serious crimes are rampant. Those residents who are lucky enough to be employed are hit by Governor Christie’s cutbacks in public transportation, education, and other areas. The library system is closing.

After seven years of state control, $175 million of special state aid, and one year after home rule has been returned to the city, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing in the local and national press on this issue. Mayor Dana Redd is playing a game of chicken with the unions, and the unions are reluctant to work out a compromise set of concessions.

So given this scenario, what is the future of Camden? Certainly, there are challenges - but these challenges are being met head on by businesses, residents, and community organizations.

Given the dire situation that has been emphasized by the local and national press, it is important that Camden’s stakeholders develop long-term solutions while simultaneously attending to the immediate problems at hand.

According to Dr. Richard Harris, the Director of the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs and a political science professor at Rutgers - Camden, it is wonderful that there are people in other communities who are proactively providing assistance, but the emphasis for fixing the city’s problems must come from within. “It’s gong to be a challenge”, he points out, but he is nevertheless optimistic that it can be done. Many of the community-based organizations and partnerships have been fairly effective at attracting funding for neighborhood improvements. For example, Rutgers and Rowan Universities along with Cooper and Lourdes Hospitals are working on an employer-based housing initiative. Federal stimulus money is also being directed to some of the infrastructure improvements, specifically greenways and pathways. This is all good, Harris pointed out, and they lay the groundwork for what is really needed - more investment from private institutions. Several institutions from within the city as well as from surrounding areas are supporting the various community development and improvement organizations. On the down side, Harris says that Camden residents have become skeptical of politics and “have little faith in the political apparatus”, so they tend not to vote. Consequently, Harris asserts that politicians don’t have to worry about carrying Camden, and community organizations have opted out of the political process. Turning this view around is really important according to Harris.

One challenge facing the city is one that New Brunswick and even Newark did not have to face in their self-reinvention. Both those cities have implemented public-private partnerships with educational institutions, medical institutions and a large local corporation - Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick and Prudential in Newark. Although  Campbell’s Soup has a hand in the revitalization of its Camden campus, the city does not have an industrial partner of the magnitude that New Brunswick and Newark have.

Despite these challenges, Dr. Harris is optimistic about the future of Camden. He feels that the city is at an “inflection point”, and the city now is in a position to “really take off.” While the state budget cuts will most likely slow things down, these public-private partnerships are  moving the city in the right direction. He points out that the fiscal crisis in New Jersey will drive a lot more collaboration such as the proposal to consolidate police services into a county-wide enterprise, as has been successful in parts of Maryland and elsewhere.

The revitalization of Camden is not without success stories - stories that don’t make the front page of the newspaper as often as police layoffs do - but “below the radar” activities that are bootstrapping the city into a more secure future.

One organization that is focused on the long term outlook for the city is the Greater Camden Partnership. According to its President & CEO, David Foster, the group is working to improve both downtown and the various neighborhoods throughout the city of 80,000 residents.

Addressing downtown, the group has formed the Camden Special Services District, a public-private-nonprofit partnership whose charter is to make the downtown and other commercial areas more hospitable to visitors and residents. The initiative was started in 2005 and is sustained by recurring annual contributions from numerous businesses and organizations.

But the downtown area is not the only beneficiary of the group’s efforts. For example, one success story is its neighborhood graffiti-removal program. According to Foster, much of the graffiti has been in place for 25 years, and there has been very little recurrence once the walls have been rehabilitated. While this may seem like a minor issue compared to some of the other problems facing the city, Foster pointed out that this program has successfully worked to change the mindset of some of those who might otherwise be prone to acts of vandalism. This approach of removing the decades of blight to help foster residents’ pride in their community has also been extended to the problem of vacant lots. The group cleaned up 81 lots and the ongoing maintenance is providing much-needed jobs to city residents. Foster pointed out that since the lots have been rehabilitated, there has not been a single incident of illicit activity, dumping, or graffiti at those locations.

Graffiti Removal (Courtesy Greater Camden Partnership)
The most ambitious project of the Partnership is the construction of the Kroc Center - a community center in the underserved Cramer Hill section that will provide resources to neighborhood residents that many of us take for granted - ball fields, swimming pools, adult day care facilities, and job training. Run by the Salvation Army and with major funding coming from the Kroc family (of McDonald’s restaurants), the center is scheduled to open at the end of next year, and will serve as an anchor institution for that neighborhood.

Like the Greater Camden Partnership, the Coopers Ferry Development Association has contributed to the nascent turnround of the city. The Association was able to influence the state to close the Riverfront State Prison, freeing up prime waterfront property for redevelopment. They worked with the developer to transform the decaying but iconic RCA building into a top-notch residential and commercial center in downtown, and had a significant role in keeping what is now L3 Communications (and its $900,000 tax revenue) in the downtown area by facilitating the state-of-the-art building. In addition to these high-visibility projects, CFDA has been instrumental in rehabilitation of parks, construction of pathways, and facilitating home improvements to improve the quality of life in the city.

Artist's Concept of Kroc Center (Courtesy JJ DeLuca Co Inc)

While the difficulties among the Mayor, the public sector unions, and the economic situation continue to dominate the news, let’s acknowledge and support the efforts by the city’s residents and businesses to lift themselves out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Camden has many advantages that it can leverage moving forward. It is more accessible to Center City Philadelphia than many parts of the City of Brotherly Love, and while some may dispute the impact on neighborhood life, the redevelopment of the Waterfront is a bona fide attraction that brings tourist dollars and jobs to the city. It has two major corporations in Campbell’s Soup and L3 Communications who have invested in their respective facilities in the city. Much of the news we see from Camden is negative, and a lot of the good work being done tends to be underreported. Rutgers’ Harris feels that the city administration has been consumed with attending to the immediate problems but that Mayor Redd recognizes this shortfall and will be more able to convey a “more balanced” message moving forward.

There is no doubt that the rehabilitation of Camden will be a long and arduous process. While the seven years of state control had some limited success, the New Jersey taxpayers did not get as much bang for the buck as they should have. And while Dr. Harris’ contention that the impetus for change must come from within is correct, the state cannot simply abandon Camden as some conservative bloggers advocate. The cutbacks in first responders have the potential to undo some of the accomplishments that the community organizations have made over the last decade, and we can’t allow that to happen. But in the short term, without a robust tax base, the mayor has a seemingly impossible task, and unless she and the unions can come to an agreement that is simultaneously fair to the unions and provides the level of protection that is needed, the state must find a way to assist. Rebuilding Camden creates more jobs in the state than does rebuilding millionaires’ portfolios.

So what does he future hold? Five years from now, Rutgers’ Harris predicts a significant increase in home ownership and small business activity within the city, and median income approaching the state and national averages. And while Harris is insistent that the metamorphosis of Camden must come primarily from those within the city, I also believe that all New Jerseyans must continue to take interest in and be supportive of what was once the jewel of South Jersey, and can once again be a source of investment, tax revenue, and Jersey pride.

No comments:

Post a Comment