PhillyDeals: Development manager: Sixers deal will improve Camden

Camden and 76ers officials at the meeting where the state approved $82 million in tax breaks for the team. A healthy Camden is good for Philadelphia, too, an architect of the deal says.

When the 76ers first hired Philadelphia development manager AthenianRazak to find a new place for the team to practice, "New Jersey wasn't on anybody's radar screen," says partner Alan Razak.

Instead, the Sixers toured would-be practice sites near their Navy Yard offices, with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.

"These weren't big enough for the offices, too," Razak said. "The Sixers had resigned themselves to split operations."

But then Gov. Christie signed New Jersey's 2013 business tax break program, granting fat incentives for moving jobs to his low-growth Garden State. Soon Camden boosters at Cooper's Ferry Partnership and the state Economic Development Authority were taking Razak and his NBA clients to barren sites on the little city's once-busy waterfront, south of the Ben Franklin Bridge. And running their calculators.

The union of location, convenience, and $82 million in 10-year tax incentives "was a combination they just couldn't turn down," Razak said. The Sixers announced the jump to South Jersey on June 8.

Nice package, if you can get it?

"People seem to assume this was a sweetheart deal between the Sixers and the state government. It really isn't," Razak insisted. "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 Philly neighborhood?

"They're really not targeting Philadelphia companies," Razak said. "I live in Philadelphia."

Jackie Buhn is Razak's wife and business partner. They met as architecture students at the University of Washington, moved here in 1982 - where he worked at Rouse & Co. and went to Wharton - raised a family, and set up the Curtis Institute expansion, among other projects.

"It hurts me when we lose jobs," Razak went on. "But a healthy Camden would be good for the region. Camden is like Philadelphia East. With 250 [Sixers] jobs, some with multimillion-dollar salaries, this will be a billboard for other companies."

I reminded Razak this has been tried before, and not just with the big taxpayer projects such as the prison, the fish house, the ball field, the show palace. A previous administration lured tech start-ups such as RJMetrics and SmarterAgent to Camden with state incentives. Staff I've talked to at both firms admitted to feeling a bit lonesome in a town that lacks the walk-to-work, eat-play-tech intensity of "N3RD Street" in Center City, or even the drive-up convenience of Cherry Hill. Both have moved out of Camden.

Lasting Camden institutions have tended to be self-sufficient fortresses that exist apart from the rundown residential neighborhoods.

"We are completely dedicated to building in the city," Razak said. "But there are challenges to Camden: It's hard to make an urban building work when there isn't an 'urb' to respond to."

Or maybe that's not such

a problem, if you're building a practice facility for celebrity athletes: "Security is a huge issue for practice facilities. That tends to lend itself to the fortress-type design," Razak said. He added that Camden's police chief, Scott Thomson, helped seal the deal.

If the Sixers' wealthy owners are not paying big taxes, if the players won't be hanging on Westfield Avenue or Kaighn Avenue, what's in this for Camden?

"People are scratching their heads about how this could possibly make any sense," Razak acknowledged.

It will improve Camden, he says, if the Sixers are followed by many more employers - which he says he expects we'll be hearing about soon, juiced by more tax breaks.

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