Friday, February 25, 2011

Fending Off Sharks

I arrived at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden in plenty of time to cover the annual meeting of the Greater Camden Partnership. The event staff showed me to the large ballroom with auditorium seating for the over 400 movers and shakers who would be attending. I set up my video camera on the left side of the room, against what I thought was a wall, near the podium.

Shortly after that, one of the aquarium staff walked by and pressed a button. The “wall” behind me turned out to be a heavy curtain, and it started to rise. Behind the curtain, I was face-to-face with a 500 pound shark along with dozens of other sea creatures in a 550,000 gallon aquarium. All that was separating me from the sharks and a watery deluge was a pane of glass.

This is an apt metaphor for the perils facing our urban centers. The sharks are out there in the persona of a Republican Tea Party which puts its wealthy benefactors above the poor and middle class personified by Camden’s residents. Even today, Governor Christie announced the termination of the Urban Enterprise Zone program which encourages small and minority owned businesses to set up shop in cities like Camden.

But, unlike the naysayers in Trenton and Washington, back in the aquarium, the people on the dry side of the glass are the ones who do care about cities like Camden and its people.

David Foster. CEO of the Greater Camden Partnership, opened the meeting with an announcement. Greater Camden Partnership, which was formed in 2001 to help revitalize the city, will merge with another non-profit, Cooper’s Ferry Development Association (CFDA). CFDA has been serving Camden since 1984 to help develop plans for the city and its transportation infrastructure. According to Foster, this merger will enable the combined group to tackle even larger redevelopment efforts to improve the city.

The highlight of the event was the keynote speech by Camden Mayor Dana Redd. She outlined how, even in these difficult times, with the proper help, cities like Camden can operate on balanced budgets (as it did in 2010) while making the priority calls that put the poor and middle class first and simultaneously promote economic growth.

Responding to the published reports of gloom and doom about public safety due to layoffs of police and firemen, the mayor stressed that public safety is her number one priority. She said that the reduction in forces is causing the public safety departments to develop new ways to more effectively deploy their assets. Camden has New Jersey’s first 24/7 mobile command center and a second one is on order. Technology will be used to fill the gaps in manpower, including microphones in crime areas that can immediately detect and report gunshots, and cameras with facial and license plate recognition. She also stressed that the city would be proactive in preventing criminal activity by improving the school system and expanding jobs and “second chance” programs.

And while public safety is the mayor’s top priority, she said that economic development is not far behind. She announced a public-private partnership to promote growth and development, and also announced the appointment of a Camden ombudsman. Referring to the expansion plans of Rutgers and Rowan Universities, and Cooper Hospital, and next year’s opening of New Jersey’s first new medical school in three decades, Ms. Redd summed up Camden’s transformation as going from an “industrial giant” to a “center for eds and meds.”

Some of the specific initiatives she mentioned were:
  • $220 million invested in the Cooper Plaza neighborhood around Cooper Hospital to attract middle-class residents, both hospital employees and people from other walks of life.
  • The addition of 80,000 square feet to the headquarters of Campbell’s Soup Company.
  • The Roosevelt Plaza project, a park renovation near City Hall, which she referred to as “Camden’s Front Lawn.”
  • Neighborhood initiatives like the Kroc Center, which will open next year in the Cramer Hill area, to provide recreational programs for people of all ages.
  • The Haddon Avenue Transit Village, a $100 million project that will supply housing, office space, and a second supermarket to provide the city’s residents with fresh produce.
The mayor is also aggressively pushing programs to rehabilitate abandoned housing, and announced a $26.1 million grant for neighborhood stabilization that was facilitated by Senators Lautenberg and Menendez, and Congressman Andrews. People like Mayor Redd and the rest of the crowd in that ballroom today are the ones who, despite the neglect of most of the Republicans and some of the Democrats in Washington and Trenton, are working to transform Camden into a city that produces rather than consumes tax dollars. Mayor Redd closed her remarks by noting that the sky is not falling in Camden. And former Camden resident, the poet Walt Whitman, foreshadowed Mayor Redd’s positive outlook when he wrote
I DREAM’D in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth
I don’t know if Camden is invincible, but the community leaders in that ballroom sure want to make it so, despite the sharks out there.
Mayor Redd's remarks are split into three videos, each approximately 10 minutes long. Her speech was inspirational but realistic. She didn't sugar coat Camden's problems, but provided a realistic vision of where she would like to take the city.

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