The bus tour had the hallmarks of a school field trip: name tags, snacks and air conditioning that worked only part of the time.
On board Thursday were a few dozen activists offering New Jersey’s top economic development official a four-hour tutorial on the “real” Camden amid ratcheting tensions over New Jersey’s tax break programs.
The group, led by local activist Ronsha Dickerson, walked through Camden High School’s crumbling athletic complex. They met a barbershop owner aspiring to buy his building after three decades of paying rent.
And they stopped in the beloved soul food restaurant Corinne’s Place, where owner Corinne Powers spoke about the pride she takes in giving many young people their first job.
“My kids come out of here. They’re lawyers. They’re doctors. They’re social workers,” she said. “I mean, it’s unbelievable. And they say there’s nothing good in Camden? Check my kids out!”
It was hard to tell from the friendly atmosphere that the event was conceived in confrontation. Last month, Camden residents descended on a meeting of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, or EDA, to demand that board members resign.
They said the $1.6 billion in tax breaks New Jersey awarded to businesses moving to or expanding in the city have primarily benefited politically connected corporations, not people like them.
To make their point, they proposed an “equity bus tour” to show board members Camden’s “backyard” — parts of the city untouched by the state’s largess, in contrast to the glimmering office buildings rising along the waterfront.
Kevin Quinn, whom Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy tapped in April to lead the EDA, was the only one to accept.
Dressed in a polo shirt, chinos and sneakers, the former Goldman Sachs banker called it a “missed opportunity” for his fellow board members who skipped the trip.
“You have to have dialogue and communicate, and everybody’s the wiser for it,” he said Thursday.
The tour came in the midst of an all-out political brawl over New Jersey’s tax break programs between Murphy and his allies on one side, and South Jersey Democrats and their allies on the other.
The tax break programs were designed to prevent corporations from leaving New Jersey and spur investment in cities such as Camden. More than $7 billion has been awarded under those programs since 2013.
But a task force appointed by Murphy has dug up evidence of potential corruption and self-dealing in how some companies won the awards, including those affiliated with George Norcross, a South Jersey powerbroker with deep Camden ties.
In response, Norcross and several companies linked to him sued the governor’s task force, challenging its authority.
In the latest flare-up, Norcross on Thursday asked a state judge to stop the task force from issuing a preliminary report next week and holding another hearing, according to POLITICO New Jersey.
That outlet also reported this week that the EDA has been issued a grand jury subpoena seeking documents related to several companies that have received tax credits.
Quinn on Thursday called Camden a “city of extremes” and acknowledged that residents have reason to be upset about the deals offered to some businesses.
“The best kind of deals are where people meet in middle, 50-50 deals, good for the state, good for companies, ultimately good for all of us,” he said. “But when you have deals that feel more 80-20, well that’s just a bad deal … And there’s something about today’s experience where it just felt like the community and the business community didn’t meet in the middle.”
Quinn also said the tour demonstrated the urgency for overhauling New Jersey’s tax incentive programs along the lines outlined by Murphy in a speech Wednesday.
The state’s existing tax incentive programs expire at the end of the month, and Murphy has called for a new set of programs that would be capped and targeted on high-growth industries, start-ups, brownfield development and historic preservation.
But there is no consensus in Trenton how to move forward. And the fight over tax incentives threatens also to poison negotiations between Murphy and lawmakers over a budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.