It can be hard running a business in Port Richmond.
Job candidates drive through trash-strewn and graffiti-squiggled neighborhoods and often skip interviews.
An employee at one company was shot walking five blocks from his plant last year. Muggings befall others. Drug dealers and prostitutes ply their trades on street corners.
"It's no secret that this area has needed help for a long time," said Rich Hoffman, president of Port Richmond electrical contractor H.R. Benjamin Inc.
Fearing the economic cost of crime and the dumping of trash around their plants, a group of about 65 industrial companies spent $120,000 to purchase and install high-tech cameras to help themselves and police. The cameras detect suspicious activity, and photograph faces and license plates up to three blocks away. When fully operational, the cameras could stream real-time video to computers in police cruisers.
It is the latest step by organizations in Philadelphia to use cameras for security and another attempt by Port Richmond companies to improve this one-square-mile neighborhood. This decade, they have spent about $1.6 million replacing signs, converting a vacant lot to a park, widening corners for tractor-trailers, repairing sidewalks, installing security fences, and paying a private company to remove trash.
The trash-hauler has plucked 20,000 dumped tires from sidewalks, curbs and yards in the area around the companies, according to one estimate.
"People use the area as a garbage can," said Tom Cerchiaro, vice president of operations at Active Radiator Inc., which employs 168 workers in two Port Richmond plants that manufacture radiators for big trucks, locomotives, oil rigs and buses. "We have a major problem when people come from out of town and see the graffiti and the drugs, and they cancel the interview even before we get started," he said.
Money for the projects has come through grants from the Delaware River Port Authority and the city, as well as a special tax on Port Richmond industrial businesses. The Port Richmond Industrial Development Enterprise, or PRIDE, is modeled after the Center City District, which assesses a special tax on downtown businesses to finance an army of sweepers in lime-green uniforms.
PRIDE assesses a special tax, which amounts to an additional 20 percent of an industrial property owner's real estate tax. The special assessment raises $40,000 a year, officials said.
Steve Jurash, who is chief executive officer of the Urban Industry Initiative in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that promotes Philadelphia manufacturing companies and founded PRIDE, said about one-quarter of the business owners in Port Richmond expected to close plants in the late 1990s, joining a long exodus of manufacturing companies from the city. The number of manufacturing workers in Philadelphia fell from 236,000 in the early 1970s to about 30,000 today.
With improvements, Jurash believes the Port Richmond area has stabilized. But dumping and drug dealing remain problems, he said.
Controlled Access L.L.C. of Maple Shade, which has the contract for the Port Richmond camera system, has installed surveillance camera systems on toll roads in Saudi Arabia and California. The 34-employee company also has a contract to install a system on a bridge in Vancouver, Canada, and develop security-badge systems for companies and institutions.
Casey Guagenti, vice president and part-owner of Controlled Access, said the Port Richmond camera system was modeled after a bigger and more complex one in New Orleans. There are at least 10 cameras in Port Richmond, officials said.
Each camera location in Port Richmond contains two cameras. One monitors the area for unusual activity, such as a person running. When this happens, an internal "alarm mode" sounds and a second camera photographs the event. The system then dispatches an e-mail to the local police. PRIDE officers and police will have access to the images from the cameras, Jurash said.
Port Richmond business owners say they think the cameras will make people think twice.
"Once the word is out, people will not be as brazen as they are," Jerry Kates, who is president of the commercial printer Advertisers Press and envelope printer Nelsonian Press, said hopefully.