I had breakfast with George Norcross and here's what he told me

I took a seat at the Marlton Diner across the table from George E. Norcross III.

“This is all about Camden,” he announced.

I’d been invited-slash-summoned to appear before the man whose influence over the city, county, region, state, and beyond is formidable or, as some would say, concerning.

“Here’s the point I’d like to make,” said Norcross, whom I’ve never known to be without an agenda.

He wanted, on that sunny morning last week, to impress upon an “influencer” – evidently, me – the importance of understanding the genesis, success, and evolving direction of the new Camden narrative, of which he is arguably the principal author.

“Camden is getting a lot of national recognition. It’s no longer a laughingstock,” said Norcross, who regularly emails reporters and others flattering media coverage about the city. “We’re changing what people think of Camden.”

Veteran PR man Dan Fee sat to Norcross’ right, making occasional notations as requested.

No photography allowed. No recording either.

“We’re getting a lot of buzz. We need more buzz,” continued Norcross, deploying his cool, ever-so-slightly amused but penetrating gaze.”We need to attract private capital, not just public dollars,” he said between forkfuls of cottage cheese and melon. “We need to sell Camden as a place you want to be.”

South Jersey’s de facto Democrat-in-chief for nearly three decades, Norcross also is a wealthy businessman, the chairman of the Cooper Health System, and more recently, the mastermind behind the extraordinary redevelopment boom in the city where he was born in 1957.

I did my first reporting about Camden almost 40 years ago and have never seen anything of the scope, scale, and potential of the $2.5 billion worth of projects – the Holtec campus, the 76ers training facility, and American Water headquarters among them – now completed, under construction, or planned throughout the city’s heart.

“Several billion more are going to be spent,” said Norcross, whose insurance company, Conner Strong & Buckelew, is moving from Marlton to a tower now being built on Camden’s downtown waterfront.

Critics like me have questioned whether heavily subsidized, self-contained developments – such as the downtown eds-and-meds corridor or the neon-accented Subaru of America headquarters near Admiral Wilson Boulevard – can collectively create enough jobs and enough demand for goods, services, and housing so that small businesses will open and people will stay in or move to the city.

The bitter history of similarly rosy, perpetually unfulfilled predictions surely mandates skepticism.

“Don’t be a cynic,” Norcross told me, giving me that look again.”We’re not repeating earlier mistakes [such as] a lack of focus on the neighborhoods. In the past, the state and the county didn’t focus on city residents first.”

The replacement of the city police department with a new county force and the disruption (not his word) of the city school system to create a smorgasbord of traditional public, charter, and “renaissance” schools have been unprecedented and are essential to “changing the city’s stats” to a degree that previous, less ambitious redevelopment efforts never could, he said.

Norcross also cited apprenticeship and training programs that have been or are being put in place to give residents a shot at what he predicted will be thousands of new jobs in Camden.

And when I bring up the rather widespread belief in the city that he wants current residents to make way for presumably more upscale newcomers, he said, “No one’s talking about replacing anybody.”

Camera icon KEVIN RIORDAN
Construction is underway for the 18-story downtown Camden waterfront tower that will house the headquarters of Conner Strong & Buckelew, the insurance brokerage firm led by George E. Norcross 3d.

His rather unexpected political and personal partnership with former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who he said “saved Camden,” also was essential. As was the leadership of former Mayor Dana L. Redd, whom he credited with winning support of churches and the wider community in the city.

For the record, he also praised new Camden Mayor Frank Moran and predicted that Phil Murphy, New Jersey’s new Democratic governor, “is going to be a great partner continuing the rebirth” of the city.

“There’s been a tremendous embrace” of the vision that he and “a group of people who are like-thinkers” have developed, Norcross continued, handing me an inch-thick document titled the Camden Rising 21st Century Infrastructure Plan.

The plan’s highlights include $55 million in improvements to city parks and playgrounds, as well as reconstruction of the Walter Rand Transportation Center and key portions of the street grid.

Norcross also provided me with several other Camden Rising documents, among them handsome renderings of the “Baseball/Softball and Multi-Purpose Field’ that will replace the defunct Campbell Field baseball stadium.

But when I asked for a copy of the progress report full of brightly colored bar graphs he was leafing through and referring to during our 90-minute conversation, he said, “You’re not getting this.”

And then, apparently for good measure: “There’s zero chance you’re getting this.”

OK, fine. But what about the fact that a “tremendous embrace” of the plan notwithstanding, more than a few folks inside and outside Camden regard him not as the city’s friend, but its enemy?

They view him not as “a big thinker … a giant dreamer” (his words), but as an unelected outsider, another on a long list of supposed saviors of Camden?

And (perhaps for good measure) they also see him as the boss of a political machine peerless in its ability to win elections, squelch or co-opt opponents, and enforce loyalty — a ruler whose relatively new public visibility, philanthropy, and willingness to collaborate are a third-act effort to burnish a bare-knuckled past?

“I’ve made some mistakes in the past. I can’t think of what they were at the moment.” Norcross said. “But I don’t have a guilty conscience.”

Such characterizations are “unfair. … It’s fake news,” he said. “I’m in charge of the largest employer [Cooper] in the city and the county. I have every right to be a participant and an advocate” for Camden.

Sounding like his Florida neighbor Donald Trump, he charged the media with being “lazy” and continuing to “define me by politics” despite his successful careers in business and at Cooper.

And his passion for the city – which I do believe is genuine – stems not from a desire to amass additional power or wealth (“I’ve already made my money”) but from a desire to restore Camden to “the mecca it was when my father was a boy” growing up there, said Norcross.

“I like the fact that the arrow has gone from negative to positive” for Camden, he added. “But I’m never satisfied.”

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