How the Sixers picked Camden

(See also my column in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer) When the 76ers hired Philadelphia development manager AthenianRazak to find a new practice facility, "New Jersey wasn't on anybody's radar screen," says partner Alan Razak.

The Sixers had planned to keep their offices down at the Navy Yard, near the team's South Philadelphia arena, Razak told me. Last year, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. took the team to visit attractive sites nearby. "They weren't big enough for the offices, too; the Sixers had resigned themselves to split operations," Razak said. A hometown deal looked close. 

But then Gov. Chris Christie signed New Jersey's 2013 tax-break law, designed to give companies fat new incentives for moving jobs to the embarrasingly high-tax, low-growth Garden State. The ink from Christie's signature was barely dry when Razak and the Sixers sat down with the Coopers Ferry Partnership, the Camden agency that has led efforts for a series of taxpayer-subsidized waterfront projects, and the state Economic Development Authority, which gives taxpayers' money to favored employers.

The Jersey team pointed out barren sites on the central Camden waterfront, south of the Ben Franklin bridge and north of the South Camden port, that were big enough for both office and practice center. The union of location, convenience, and $82 million in 10-year tax incentives, "was a combination they just couldn't turn down," Razak added. The Sixers announced the jump to Jersey on June 8.

What's that look like? "People seem to assume this was a sweetheart deal between the Sixers and the state government. It really isn't," Razak told me. "The state passed that legislation without the Sixers in mind. The Sixers have been one of the most prominent companies to avail themselves of it. But a bunch of others are getting ready to announce in the next few months."

So, there goes the neighborhood?  "They're really not targeting Philadelphia companies," Razak insists. "I live in Philadelphia," with his wife and businss partner, Jackie Buhn (they met as architecture students at the University of Washignton, moved here in 1982 where he worked at Rouse & Co. and dwent to Wharton, raised three kids and designed the Curtis Institute expansion, among other projects. For awhile they ran separate firms, then merged; "I love working with her," he says.)

"It hurts me when we lose jobs," Razak continued. "But a healthy Camden would be good for the region. Camden is like Philadelphia East. With 250 (Sixers) jobs, some with multi-million-dollar salaries, this will be a billboard for other companies."

I reminded Razak this has been tried before, and not just with the big public projects like the prison, the Aquarium, the River Sharks, the Susquehanna Bank Center. Real live smart-jobs-producing tech firms like RJMetrics and SmarterAgent were drawn to Camden by state programs, lured by incentives -- only to leave town as they grew: RJMetrics to Center City, SmarterAgent to Collingswood.

Employees I talked to at those firms acknowledged feeling a bit isolated in a city that lacked the intense techie-foodie-walk-to-work neighborhood ambiance of vibrant startup communities like Philadelphia's "N3RD St.", the coworking enclaves of Market Street West, or University City around FirstRound Capital. Not to mention the retro suburban centers where founders tend to cluster once they mate and start sending the kids to school.

Camden's anchor institutions tend to be self-sufficient fortresses separated from the rundown neighborhoods around them. "We are completely dedicated to builing in the city. But there are challenges to Camden: It's hard to make an urban building work when there isn't an 'urb' to respond to," Razak admitted.

But maybe that's not such a problem, if you're a group of billionaire owners building a practice facility for millionaire celebrity athletes: "Security is a huge issue for practice facilities, whether they're in the suburbs like Cleveland, or in the South Loop like in Chciago. That tends to lend itself to the fortress-type design," Razak said.

He hopes to make Sixers new complex secure of approach "without turning its back completely on the surroundings." He also praised the reorganized police under Chief Scott Thompson, who the Sixers found "impressive."

If the Sixers and their wealthy owners won't pay all the taxes, if they won't be hanging in the hood, what's really in this for Camden? "People are scratching their heads about how this could possibly make any sense," Razak acknowledged. But it works, he said, if you consider the Sixers a draw that will attract a critical mass of new employers, and eventually the restaurants, retailers and service firms will follow. "It's very centrally located. Transportation access is pretty easy. As the team has said, it's closer to Center City than the Navy Yard is."

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