Seven years after the state takeover of Camden, Governor-elect Christopher J. Christie says the project has been a failure. That assessment may be accurate for key areas of the recovery, but it’s too harsh for others.
As with any other city, including Philadelphia, you can find the good, the bad, and the ugly in Camden. But the state’s recovery plan, warts and all, has put the South Jersey town on firmer footing to stop being America’s poster child for poverty.
When that actually occurs will depend on whether Camden can finally get what it has had too little of for five decades — informed, effective, honest leadership that focuses attention on the city’s crumbling neighborhoods.
In a four-part series that concluded yesterday, Inquirer reporter Matt Katz detailed the shortcomings of the 2002 takeover in which Camden was given $175 million in bonds and loans and the state was given all municipal authority over the city.
Too little of that money went to neighborhoods with rundown rowhouses and ancient sewers. Too few jobs were created for an education-challenged population that typically can’t qualify for new jobs when they are available.
State money went to waterfront attractions, including Adventure Aquarium, which received $25 million in recovery money for its expansion before the state sold it to a private enterprise. Campbell’s Field, the minor-league ballpark, also got bailout money.
Making those amenities viable and attractive will help Camden escape its reputation as a dead-end town that lacks vibrancy. But ballparks and aquariums shouldn’t stand ahead of schools, police, and public works in the cash line when state money is doled out for improvements.
That said, much of the bailout money for Camden was spent in areas that should provide significant returns on the state’s investment. Three colleges, two hospitals, and a new medical school are beneficiaries, including Cooper University Hospital, which received $12.3 million toward its $220 million expansion.
Not only will the Cooper expansion provide more jobs, but it also will increase access to health care in a city where most residents are medically deprived.
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital also received bailout money, as did Rowan University and Cooper to help build their new medical school. Camden County College got recovery money and has seen a 50 percent increase in its Camden city students.
Campbell’s Soup has long been Camden’s economic pillar, but it’s doubtful it would be building its $90 million world headquarters in the city were it not for a $2.3 million contribution from the recovery fund. Many Campbell’s workers live in other nearby towns, so its departure would have hurt all of South Jersey.
While Camden’s mostly poor citizens are right to ask why more money hasn’t been spent on their neighborhoods, they weren’t left completely out. In fact, most of the $48 million appropriated to residential projects was targeted to low-income renters. Too bad there weren’t more allocations like the $1.2 million in subsidies for buyers of market-rate homes near Rutgers-Camden.
Camden’s future will hinge on its ability to attract more middle-income homeowners. Cooper Hospital is helping in that regard by using $3.6 million in recovery dollars to lure its staff to 95 mostly market-rate homes nearby.
Unfortunately, though, the middle class won’t be attracted to Camden schools, which remain abysmal. In fact, the biggest failure of the state takeover has been the minimal impact it has had on improving the city’s schools. Not enough has changed in the two years since Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young took over. Gubernatorial appointments to the school board haven’t helped. It’s time for more drastic action.
Better results have come from the tight relationship between the city, Camden County, and the state to improve law enforcement. Camden remains a dangerous town with connections to gangs and drug dealing. But even after cutting 60 officers, several areas of the city are much safer because of better deployment of police and support provided by hospital and university security.
In comparing Camden’s experience with the successful state takeover of Chelsea, Mass., which ended after three years, it’s obvious that the New Jersey city can do better with the right leadership.
After its takeover in 1991, Chelsea got two successive city managers who focused on job creation and fighting crime. Camden hasn’t been as well served by its state-appointed CEOs. But the background of its newly elected mayor, State Sen. Dana Redd (D., Camden), suggests she could do the job right without an overseer.
She may get her chance. The Legislature has extended the 2002 recovery act until 2012. But Christie says he wants to return government to Camden sooner than that. He’s not promising the city any more bailout money, but he needs to recognize that there are areas where the city may need more state help.
If Camden gets the right leadership, though, good advice might carry it further than cash.