Subaru of America on Wednesday broke ground on the site of the company's future Camden headquarters, a project that will transform a vacant plot of land off the Admiral Wilson Boulevard into a sprawling office park.
The property, across from the Campbell Soup Co. complex, will be the new home base for the company's U.S. operations, bringing together four offices. In addition to the 250,000-square-foot facility planned for the land, the company will build an 83,000-square-foot training facility.
Subaru will become the first anchor tenant in an area that Campbell has for years been hoping to transform. After buying the 13-acre property in 2012, the company demolished the former Sears building and hired Brandywine Realty Trust to develop the area. The finished project, called Knights Crossing, will hold more than one million square feet of commercial space, according to Brandywine.
Assembled beneath a large white tent, Camden leaders, local politicians, and members of the business community spoke of their hope that the project will spark more development and bring jobs to the poverty-stricken city.
"Today not only signifies a long-term commitment by Subaru to the region, but now to our city and, yes, to our residents," Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said. "To say this is an incredible investment to our city and region is an understatement."
After the speakers were finished, the crowd moved outdoors. Redd got into a bright yellow Subaru Outback, drove it over a mound of dirt and shoveled a heap of earth to mark the start of construction. The company expects to have the project complete by the end of 2017.
Subaru announced the move a year ago, after the state Economic Development Authority awarded the company $118 million in tax incentives under the Economic Opportunity Act to move from its Cherry Hill location, about four miles away. The credits, spread over 10 years, are conditional on Subaru creating or saving at least 250 jobs in the city and remaining in Camden for at least 15 years.
"This is about creating opportunities for jobs, which are the best social programs anyone can provide," said U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.), who as a state senator championed the law.
Critics of the Economic Opportunity Act have noted that the deals announced thus far have largely involved the relocation of high-paying jobs from elsewhere in South Jersey with no strategies aimed at addressing the city's chronic unemployment. Subaru's move will draw more than 500 existing jobs to the city and create about 100, company officials say, but those positions are unlikely to match the qualifications of many of Camden's long-term unemployed. The move will also result in Subaru paying far less in property taxes than in Cherry Hill.
Other critics of the Subaru plan have said the company's location is too isolated from the city's downtown restaurants and other commercial corridors. Members of the new workforce would have to drive in order to patronize local businesses.
On Wednesday Subaru president and CEO Thomas Doll said company employees now spend about $1.5 million annually at businesses that are within a three-mile radius of where they work. Doll said he believed employees will continue venturing out to get lunches and do errands, especially if more businesses start blossoming around the new Subaru location.
"There is going to be the need for a lot of services and ancillary businesses to support this growth," Doll said. "This kind of investment is going to have a huge impact on the local economy of Camden."
The company also plans to install a free bike share program and bike trail to encourage people to make the one-mile trip to the waterfront or other parts of the city.
"We want to be a part of the redevelopment of Camden," Doll said. "We want to be a catalyst for it, and we want to contribute to it."