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Will new athletic facility for Rutgers replace Campbell's Field on Camden waterfront?

Barbara Boyer, Phil Anastasia, Staff Writer

Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2017, 8:45 PM

Teams from Stockton University and Rutgers–Camden playing earlier this year at Campbell’s Field in Camden. The stadium was once hailed as a sign of the bright future of the waterfront .

Talks underway to raze Campbell’s Field on the Camden waterfront and replace it with a sports complex for Rutgers-Camden have excited some and concerned others.

But a Camden County spokesman says it’s premature to either fear or celebrate what may happen to the valuable eight acres that provide a perch for viewing Philadelphia’s skyline and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

While there are active discussions to sell the property, which was home to the now-defunct Camden Riversharks minor-league baseball team, and have it used in a way that benefits the city, nothing is final, spokesman Dan Keashen said Wednesday.

But Keashen said he can’t talk about what officials are talking about.

News of razing the ballpark came out Tuesday during a panel discussion hosted by the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce. Local business leaders were fielding questions about why they had located their offices in Camden, and George E. Norcross III, chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper University Health Care, was asked about the future of Campbell’s Field, said Kathleen Davis, the chamber’s executive vice president.

It’s coming down, Norcross reportedly said.

In its place, he said, there would be “world-class” athletic fields for Rutgers that would also benefit local schools. Rutgers spokesman Mike Sepanic said the school, whose NCAA Division III baseball team leases Campbell’s Field for practices and home games, asked to be a partner in the project. “We feel good about this, and I’ve heard no concerns,” Sepanic said.

It’s possible, one official said, the existing stadium will become part of a sports complex.

Norcross, who is also executive chairman of the insurance firm Conner Strong & Buckelew and a Democratic Party leader, had been dubious that the stadium would be an adequate stimulus for a revitalized waterfront. The state paid more than $20 million to build it. While the Riversharks attracted baseball enthusiasts, ticket sales failed to reach the projected mark and financial problems ensued.

“The stadium had been in financial disarray from the moment it was built,” said Keashen, who added that the county purchased the 6,400-seat stadium in 2015 for $3.5 million just ahead of foreclosure. The county wanted to maintain control of the land, Keashen said. The county still owes $3.3 million on a bond. It collects about $100,000 annually from the Rutgers lease and other events, but pays $300,000 a year in outlay, he said.

“At this point in time, the Camden County Improvement Authority is still involved with confidential and deliberative negotiations about prospective uses of the waterfront stadium,” Keashen said.

“Based on these negotiations, we cannot comment on the future of the facility, in order to preserve our current negotiating position. That said, it is still in operation and being maintained by the authority as a baseball stadium and a host site for regional events. Furthermore, the second construction phase of a $1 billion project along the waterfront is ongoing adjacent to the site and will add to the value of the property as it evolves over the next two years.”

Chris Widger played for the Riversharks in 2004 and was manager from 2013 until the team folded in 2015.

“It’s terrible” that the stadium could be razed, he said. “The last years I was there, you could kind of see the handwriting on the wall. We were trying to negotiate a deal to keep the team operating there, but I don’t think they wanted a team there.”

“When I played there in ’04, we had great crowds, lively crowds,” he said. “I still see people in Wilmington and they’ll say to me, ‘Man, I wish they still were playing in Camden.’ ”

Widger, a Pennsville High School graduate, played 10 years in the major leagues and was with the Chicago White Sox when they won the World Series in 2005, a year after he left the Riversharks. He currently is the bench coach of the Wilmington Blue Rocks minor-league team.

“I have great memories of that place,” Widger said of Campbell’s Field. “It was a good atmosphere to play and coach there.”

Widger recalled that as the crowds diminished, the team had no money, and did little marketing and advertising.

Others along the waterfront said they long have had concerns about the vacant stadium.

Jack Willard, spokesman for the Battleship New Jersey, said that when the Riversharks were there, the battleship hosted events with team members who coached youths as they hit tennis balls off the ship’s deck. They also cohosted overnight events that included going to a baseball game and sleeping on the battleship.

“The battleship is sorry to hear that it’s going to be a teardown, but we’re happy to see progress there,” Willard said.

No one has provided a timetable for Campbell’s Field. Norcross, who did not return calls seeking comment, said at the Chamber of Commerce event that it would happen in the “not-too-distant future.”

Graham Alexander, CEO of Victor Music Group in Camden, said he looked forward to a new sports complex as the current stadium does not provide what the waterfront needs.

“We can complain as much as we want about a cement building coming down, but it’s not a building with historical significance,” Alexander said. The city needs an attraction that can draw crowds, he said.

Bill Wagner, president of Hot Stovers Baseball Club of South Jersey, is concerned about a Hall of Fame exhibit that has been at Campbell’s Field since 2003 and features $200,000 worth of memorabilia, including plaques honoring every member of the South Jersey baseball Hall of Fame.

“We’re struggling because we really don’t have a home,” Wagner said. “We’ve been looking around at different places, but nothing is set. We don’t know the time frame, we don’t know if Rutgers builds a new athletic complex if there will be a place there for us, or whether we can go to Rowan or Camden County College or some other place.

“There’s so much history and time and energy that went into creating that place. We really want to find a place to keep this alive.”

Barbara Boyer, Phil Anastasia, Staff Writer

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