Taking the Long View in Camden

Camden has long made headlines for all the wrong reasons: being America’s poorest city,most dangerous city, a city with no grocery store. But if you ask Cooper’s Ferry Partnership’sJacob Gordon, who led 40 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange participants on a tour of this city just a 10-minute PATCO ride from Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, things are changing in Camden – and fast. 


In 2011, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership (CFP) was created when two independent nonprofits focused on redeveloping the city’s waterfront and its adjacent downtown decided to merge. Both organizations brought significant expertise and proven results: investments in the waterfront have undeniably helped to bring in new visitors – the Adventure Aquarium, Campbell’s Field, and the Susquehanna Bank Center attracted well over 3 million visitors in the last year alone – and the anchor institution-led Downtown Camden Strategic Development Plan has guided collaborative improvement efforts for the last decade.


While most of the press about Camden’s redevelopment has focused on the significant improvements along the waterfront, our tour gave us the opportunity to see what revitalization efforts look like downtown. One thing we noticed almost immediately: a lot of bright yellow uniforms. Borrowing from similar successful efforts in Philadelphia’s Center City District and University City District, the Camden Special Services District manages a downtown “clean and safe” program that employs Camden residents who serve as both “maintenance ambassadors” (by removing litter, graffiti and greening vacant lots) and “good will ambassadors” (by offering general information and serving as a constant and assuring presence).


As we continued to wind our way through downtown, we got a look at Camden's efforts to transform nearby historic residential neighborhoods. It’s clear that one of the biggest challenges facing the city is attracting more residents to build its depleted tax base. At its peak in 1950, Camden had roughly 125,000 residents – today, it has a little more than 75,000. But there are signs things are slowly turning around: on our tour we learned that a recent home sale in the in the Cooper Plaza neighborhood crossed the $200,000 threshold, a significant milestone for Camden. Cooper Grant, another middle-income neighborhood near Rutgers and the Ben Franklin Bridge, has also seen similar rises in property values. 


We passed several new green spaces and construction sites on our way to our next stop, newly opened Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.


At the medical school, a panel of leaders from Rutgers-Camden, Rowan and Cooper emphasized that, for them, collaboration was nothing new. For the last 12 years, these three major institutions – along with a number of others in the “eds & meds” sector – have met quarterly as part the Camden Higher Education and Healthcare Task Force with the explicit goal of improving the City of Camden and the quality of life of its residents. This long-term collaboration has yielded significant returns: in the last five years alone, Cooper Hospital spent $200 million in upgrades, Rutgers-Camden finished construction of a new $55 million dorm, Cooper Medical School welcomed its inaugural class to a $140 million state-of-the-art facility, and ground was broken on the new $72 million Cooper MD Anderson Cancer Center.


Building on these successes, in the last year, two significant pieces of state legislation passed that are poised to spur the growth of the eds and meds sectors in Camden: the New Jersey Medical & Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act, which will bring more state higher education funding to South Jersey, and the Building Our Future Bond Act. The Bond Act will provide $750 million statewide in matching grants to universities to expand higher education facilities, with an estimated $350 million coming to Camden. These investments, which will span the next five years, have already started to bear fruit – on our tour, we stood on the site of municipal parking lot where Rutgers-Camden is set to begin construction of a new 100,000 square-foot nursing school & research building next spring.


However, growth in the eds and meds sectors can only be part of the solution. Camden has had a consistent, dedicated corporate partner in Campbell’s Soup Corporation, which has presented some exciting plans for upgrades to its corporate headquarters downtown. But it will take more than the city’s few existing large employers to generate sufficient private sector jobs. To this end, the Economic Opportunity Act that passed in Trenton this year establishes Camden as a Garden State Growth Zone, providing significant tax incentives to make development in Camden more competitive and lower barriers to entry for South Jersey development projects.


While these investments will largely benefit downtown Camden, there are clearly still significant challenges in the city’s many other neighborhoods. To get a better understanding of programs working to make a difference in these communities, we headed up to North Camden to Respond, Inc., and Hopeworks. Both nonprofits operate innovative social enterprise models. Respond operates a bakery and landscaping and catering businesses that subsidize the wide variety of other programs they provide to community residents, while also providing valuable hands-on job training for participants. Hopeworks supports its free technology programming for neighborhood youth by providing web development and database consulting services to paying clients.


While these and other community-based programs are working tirelessly to create opportunities for neighborhood residents and recent state legislation will help create jobs and revitalize downtown Camden, it’s important to take the long view. It took decades for Camden to fall into decline, and it will unquestionably take at least that long for it to be the thriving city it once was. Nothing made that more apparent than looking out the window across from Cooper’s impressive new facilities to see several vacant buildings, with missing window panes and Department of Public Works stenciled in spray-paint across the wood barring the door.


It’s clear it will take both long-term, dedicated investment and collaboration among neighborhood groups, large institutions, government and private industry to ensure scenes like this will be hard to remember for the next generation of Camden residents.