CAMDEN, N.J. | Nearly three decades ago, the city's waterfront land largely was an amalgamation of old industrial buildings and sites with environmental hazards.
Anthony Perno III, who leads a 28-year-old private nonprofit agency that is one of Camden's economic development stewards, said it took a long time to build credibility as a development agent and convince people the waterfront could drive people to visit Camden's central business district.
These areas now house attractions -- including the stadium for an independent league baseball team, a 25,000-seat amphitheater, an aquarium and parks.
"People looked at us like, 'You guys are nuts,'" said Perno, who has been with the Cooper's Ferry Partnership since 1999 and is its chief executive officer.
Building on the success large institutions had with their economic development projects, private and public sector officials and residents want to see spinoff improvements in city neighborhoods, which haven't been as successful at landing investments.
"Camden is a very challenging place to live or work or invest," said Frank Fulbrook, a community activist and one of the founders of the Cooper-Grant Neighborhood Association. "It takes very gutsy people to come here and operate. I've seen a lot of enthusiastic people come and go because the city would wear 'em down."
With three hospitals, two universities and a community college in Camden, business leaders are doubling down on an “eds and meds” as the backbone for the city's economic development, Perno said.
More than 300 people, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, attended a July grand opening of the $139 million Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.
Cooper University Hospital President and CEO John Sheridan Jr. said the effort to build the school with an educational partner started in the 1970s. He said hospital chairman and South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross III and hospital trustees continued to push for the school in the early 2000s.
The first class of 50 recruits starts school this month.
"We felt it was crucial to our growth as the university hospital," Sheridan said. He also said the development will serve as an additional magnet for talented physicians and continued access to quality care in the community.
The hospital also has applied with local and state education authorities to open elementary and secondary schools in the city that focus on the medical arts.
Less than a mile from the new medical school, more than 350 graduate students at Rutgers University in Camden soon will be moving into a new campus dormitory, said Andrew Seligsohn, director of civic engagement at Rutgers–Camden. Seligsohn said the movement toward adding student housing and retail ventures while making Rutgers-Camden more of a "24-hour university" is part of a deliberate effort to expand its reach in the city.
This is a marked difference from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Seligsohn said, when there was a greater disconnect between the campus and the city. Even the campus architecture reflected a "fortress mentality" to secure itself from rising crime rates around it.
The Camden-based Campbell Soup Co., home of red and white label cans of soup and brands such as Prego sauces, V8 Fusion and Bolthouse Farms, opened its new 80,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and employee services building in June 2010.
The opening served as an outward sign of the Fortune 500 company's commitment to the city, said Campbell Vice President of Global Communications Anthony Sanzio. He said moving can be complicated, costly and disruptive to the employee base. Officials said it wouldn't be in the best interest of the community and company shareholders.
With staying the area, Campbell agreed to help attract additional development to the city's Gateway section. The city has acquired 13 acres of property since 2007 in the area, including the controversial acquisition of an 85-year-old former Sears Roebuck building that it plans to raze. Sanzio said the company is working to find a developer to build an office park, and Campbell is pleased city and state authorities have made infrastructure improvements in the area supporting the effort.
Biz struggles in the city
Representatives from all three institutions say they enjoy a long-established, solid relationship with the city, but other businesses say their experience in the city is more difficult.
Dominic Petulla, the 76-year-old owner of Gold-Star Shoe Repairing, said the economic downturn in Camden that predates the recession is hurting him more than the city's regulatory regime. Petulla's business is located on Broadway less than a mile south of downtown. In his youth, the street was a thriving retail and commercial district. Now, he has concerns that "if the place looks too good, then you have to worry about the break-ins."
"Customers call me up and are afraid to come to the city and they know me and appreciate my knowledge of the industry," Petulla said. "There's still concern of the crime rate, that's the first thing that has to get done. If we had stores and maybe theaters come back," you'll have jobs.
He said all the businesses around him have the same problem with customers being less frequent because there's less money in the community. But when he thinks about leaving, Petulla said he hears the voice of his father, who opened the business in 1929 after immigrating from Italy.
Mayor Dana Redd said she has spent the first two and a half years in her tenure to streamline government processes and make it "more business-friendly and business-minded." She said the new approach has helped along development projects in the city, including the opening of the Meadows of Pyne Poynt affordable rental housing development.
Flying Fish Brewing Co. Founder and President Gene Muller said he tried to move the business into Camden in 1995 when it first opened and then in the mid-2000s to no avail. Muller said it appeared that there were "too many cooks in the kitchen" in attempting to work with the Coopers Ferry, the city's government and the redevelopment authority.
Flying Fish, the largest craft brewery in the state, is now in the neighboring suburb Cherry Hill and will soon complete a move to a facility in nearby Somerdale for its expanding business, Muller said.
"I don't blame the city. They're in a tough spot," Muller said. "They've tried to hit home runs with big projects and developments and that's had mixed results. Maybe an approach of hitting singles, helping a lot of small businesses grow and thrive all over the city, (would work)."
Muller still has city ties and helped organize an annual craft beer festival and fundraiser on the Battleship New Jersey in late June to benefit that organization and the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild. The event brought more than 800 people and 19 brewers to the event, many of whom don't live in Camden.
Neighborhoods calling for attention
Perno said his organization and the city still are seeking additional development of attractions, new residences and office space in those areas. But it's important to make sure connections are built between the city's key economic districts and the neighborhoods.
"If residents don't feel like it's their downtown, you won't get the buy-in," Perno said. "You won't get commercial enterprises to move downtown. It's a symbiotic relationship. We're trying to create a great place."
Responsible land development requires patience, and Perno said more funds will be shifted to projects that can lay the foundation for neighborhood improvements.
Camden will be challenged for funding neighborhood projects because of its heavily reliance on state assistance to balance its books and lack of a strong property tax base, said Rutgers-Camden history professor Howard Gillette. The institutions' developments also will generate work in the city, but he said those efforts will do little to lift people out of poverty.
Redd said more housing opportunities and the development of mixed income communities would help many areas of the city recover.
In 30 years, Frank Fulbrook said the Cooper-Grant neighborhood has gone from having a 40 percent vacancy rate to being one of the most stable neighborhoods in the city with some of the highest-value residential real estate in the city. Rutgers-Camden is located within Cooper-Grant, and the neighborhood is adjacent to the Delaware River and the bridge that leads to Philadelphia.
Fulbrook said the effort started with a group of people improving the neighborhood by buying and fixing adjoining duplexes on one block. Over time, he said others were convinced to engage in cleanup efforts, and neighbors started to reclaim properties that were shells and began to press the city to get rid of those that were too far gone.
While Fulbrook's neighborhood is one of the highest income areas of the city, others such as North Camden and Whitman Park struggle with higher levels of crime, lower median incomes and higher numbers of blighted properties.
In response, the city's mayor said about 150 residents signed a pledge earlier this year and many received training to become a grassroots advocate to improve their neighborhood. Redd said the effort is about linking residents to opportunities within the city, especially by working with large institutions to understand how their development plans coincide with what residents want in their communities.
Distrust of government is not something unique to the city of Camden, but Redd said the city has to "make believers out of people." She said the stereotypes about Camden have to change to show people things are getting better instead of accepting the negative narrative that is oft repeated.
"Beyond the optimism, which I have not seen in a long time, we have residents that are willing to step up and become part of change," Redd said.