Imagine 10,000 new jobs in Camden

JRIORDAN17
Camden resident Aisha David helps set sections of reinforcing material where a concrete slab will be poured.

A $290 million manufacturing complex is rising on a long-moribund expanse of land along the Delaware River in Camden.

By next April, about 300 engineering and support staff employees of Holtec International, a company that designs and builds equipment for nuclear, solar, and conventional power plants worldwide, should be at work in new facilities just north of the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Company officials say total employment at the new Holtec Technology Campus could reach 1,000 by the end of the decade, making Holtec one of the largest employers in the city.

And if a reactor cooling system the company plans to develop in Camden proves technically feasible and commercially viable, by 2030 as many as 10,000 people - a substantial number of city residents among them - could be working there.

The campus is coming to life on the ruins of the storied New York Shipbuilding Corp., which thrived in the first half of the 20th century.

The city's mighty manufacturing economy had 43,000 jobs in 1950, the era when Camden was rightly said to make "everything from a fountain pen to a battleship."

The industrial workforce has shrunk to around 2,000 jobs.

"I want to hire people from Camden," Holtec president K.P. "Kris" Singh says. "I have done very well for myself, and I want to do good for people who are most in need of help. I don't believe in welfare. I believe in workfare."

With its heavy equipment, latticeworks of steel, and swarms of workers in hard hats, the 50-acre construction site is an exciting place to visit.

Even a visitor like me, a congenital optimist turned reluctant skeptic after more than 30 years of writing about Camden's next big thing, can't help but feel a twinge of hope for the tough old town.

This time, enormous manufacturing facilities - nearly half a million square feet - are the focus, rather than eds, meds, or tourist attractions.

"You can see it coming," says Camden County Freeholder Jon Young, an executive board member of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters. "It's alive. It's real. And we're getting set up for it."

"Dr. Singh has a strong commitment to local hires and local sourcing [of services]," says Mayor Dana L. Redd.

The city is negotiating community benefits agreements with the major partners in projects, she says.

Hoping

In the past, many of the projects I wrote about never happened at all. Others did, and some of those have given the city a boost. Still others, such as Subaru of America's corporate headquarters and the 76ers' training complex, are underway.

Like most of the earlier projects, Holtec will receive a public subsidy - a $260 million tax break under the state Economic Development Authority's Grow New Jersey program.

The company must meet conditions for investment, job retention, and job creation; such incentives may well be the most consistent element of Camden's big-ticket redevelopment projects.

Also consistent, alas, is the fact that historically, many if not most of the jobs created by Camden redevelopment projects have ended up being filled by people from outside the city.

Despite all the fervent expressions of good intentions at groundbreaking ceremonies.

But with Holtec's input, an unusually comprehensive infrastructure of education and training is being created among partners such as the Camden School District, Camden County College, the county freeholders, and the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Last year marked the start of a similar partnership among the school district, the Rowan University/Rutgers Camden Board of Governors, the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, and city medical institutions.

Five of the 10 students from Camden and Woodrow Wilson High Schools who enrolled in a Medical Assistants Training program have received job offers, says Kris Kolluri, the joint board's chief executive officer.

"With Holtec, we worked hand-in-hand to design a 210-hour entry-level welding program," explains Carol McCormick, senior account executive at the Corporate Training Institute at Camden County College.

Six students, including three who live in Camden, have so far been accepted for a class set to begin April 25 in the welding shop at Camden County Technical School's Sicklerville campus.

Holtec needs to hire 100 welders, and will also provide training at its facilities in Ohio and Camden, says Lee Laurendeau, the company's director of manufacturing.

"We're also hiring for about 50 additional manufacturing jobs," Laurendeau adds. "We're making our best effort [to hire Camden residents]. It's not always the easiest path."

Camden evolution

In an office on the construction site, I get a chance to chat with three enthusiastic Camden residents working as laborers - Alan Hall, Aisha Davis, and Charles Little - as well as officials of Joseph Jingoli & Son Inc., the Mercer County firm managing the project.

"I've seen the evolution in Camden," says Ibrahim Branham, who lives in the city and is Jingoli's mechanical, electrical, and engineering supervisor for the Holtec project.

The commitment to hire locally "is not a policy," he declares. "It's genuine."

I hope so, because what I saw on the waterfront last week could well be transformational for the city. It's an enormous private and public investment, a project of a magnitude I've not seen in Camden.

So I would hate to see the Holtec Technology Campus become just another island of development, where a largely suburban workforce zips in and out. That would hardly do justice to everyone's good intentions for the city, or to the 77,000 people who live there.

kriordan@phillynews.com

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