Remedy for Camden: Everything has to work

The new Subaru headquarters, an expanded Campbell Soup, the Holtec project, the Liberty Property Trust complex on the waterfront -- lots of development is slated for Camden. But will it be enough to bring the city up from poverty? 

"The trouble that Camden has, or part of the trouble that Camden has, is the expectations that get placed on every single decision," John Grady told me during our Executive Q&A interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. Grady leads the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC), but he started his urban economic development career working in Camden for the Cooper's Ferry Partnership. He joined Cooper's Ferry fresh out of college in 1989 and moved to PIDC in 1998, where he helped spearhead the development of the Navy Yard.

"Is the waterfront going to save Camden?  No, it’s not," he said.  "Are $2 billion in tax credits going to save Camden?  No, it’s not.  Would a great school system save Camden?  No, it’s not.  Would public safety save Camden by itself?  No, it’s not. 

"You have to do layers of these things to create a place that people want to live and that people want to invest in [so] people can see a future.  It has to be a holistic, comprehensive approach. So, I do think the things that are happening in Camden," he said, listing "the growth of the anchor institutions there -- Rutgers and Rowan and Cooper Hospital. establishing those institutions as anchors; attracting employment into those areas; the movement around improvement in the school system; and allowing for different types of permits, all those things need to [happen]. They’re making great progress.  It’s just that no one of them is going to save Camden."

Question: But there is movement now in Camden, right?

Answer: What I think is happening in Camden is the state’s investing I think a couple billion dollars in tax credits.  They are, essentially, having New Jersey companies move from the suburbs of New Jersey into Camden. I think the state has decided to make an investment in these tax credits to try and create an employment center in Camden. I think that’s a great start to establishing a private economy in Camden.  

One of the issues that I saw when I was in Camden was there was very little private tax base. At the time, less than 25 percent of the city’s revenue base came from taxes.  The rest came from state government.  So, to begin a process where people can create a credible place to invest in Camden is really important.  When I was working with Cooper’s Ferry in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, that was our goal.  Our goal was to begin to establish places and people where there was credibility for investment.

Q: Why did you begin your career in Camden? You've advised young people in this field to go where they can learn. Did that advice work for you in Camden?

A: Cooper's Ferry was a group that was clearly growing. They clearly had ideas. It became really clear that these were really great people.  I’m a big believer of find good people to work with, good people to learn from, situations where you can learn.  I was really fortunate that, especially during my time in Camden, there was the work part of trying to build relationships between government and private industry development and investment.  There was that element.  There was also the element of being able to understand and, in some ways, participate in the political part of that -- understanding government and how government worked and how the politics in a place like Camden and in New Jersey more broadly worked. 

Q: So it really prepared you for your career in PIDC, right?

A:  When I came to PIDC in 1998, I was certainly well prepared in terms of the environment.  Coming to Philadelphia it was a much bigger pond, again.  More layers to understand, more relationships to understand, a much bigger marketplace, so, a lot more activity and more players.  So there was a transition because of those types of things.  I think I had the basics of trying to understand.  What drew me into the work was how the public maximizes the use of its resources in order to attract private investment, since the resources available in the private sector are an order of magnitude larger than the public.  So, the public has to be smart about what it seeks, how it does it, how it interacts with the private community.  To find a place like PIDC that was very similar to Cooper’s Ferry in the role of bridging the relationships and the implementation between public and private I think was the most natural fit for me, probably.

Next: Oh, it's not personal, really.

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