Once an industrial giant, supplying the world with condensed soup and building ships for the U.S. military, Camden is rekindling that past with the expected opening later this month of a plant bringing jobs back from China.
With its anticipated 300 or more workers, ResinTech, which makes water filtration products, will not employ the tens of thousands who once made Campbell’s Soup and New York Shipbuilding iconic names.
But, built on 27 acres of previously contaminated land straddling Cramer Hill and East Camden, ResinTech will provide the types of jobs that residents have been clamoring for under a controversial corporate-tax break that many say has left them out.
“It’s a beautiful thing to have a quote-unquote career job in the town that you live in,” said Givenson Colon, a local resident, after handing his resume to ResinTech’s head of human resources as a job fair earlier this year.
Referring to the several companies that have newly arrived in the city, he added: “I feel it gives hope to the younger people, because a lot of us are making irresponsible decisions based off of immediate need or being hungry and stuff like that. You don’t have to do it. You don’t. There’s options now.”
ResinTech is the umbrella name for a family of companies that will move to the Camden facility under a state program that gives businesses generous tax breaks to relocate to economically disadvantaged areas.
Camden was the largest single beneficiary of that program, which Gov. Phil Murphy let expire last year. More than two dozen companies relocating to the city have been promised a combined $1.6 billion in incentives if they meet certain employment targets.
Supporters say those tax breaks — including up to $139 million for ResinTech — have been essential in luring companies to the distressed city and have coincided with a turnaround in crime and education.
But critics — mostly Black residents, activists and religious leaders — say that money has flowed predominantly to politically connected outsiders to build gleaming waterfront office towers that they’ve filled with existing employees from the suburbs.
During a tour of the construction site in January, ResinTech CEO Jeffrey Gottlieb said his company is addressing those concerns.
“I would say right now, to the extent that we need people for the types of jobs we need, we’re exclusively targeting Camden residents,” he said. “We are coming to Camden first.”
Plus, he said, the company is a good fit for its working-class neighborhood.
“We have a number of white-collar jobs, and that’s not going to change,” he said. “But we have many, many, many, many unskilled, semi-skilled opportunities for workers — hundreds and hundreds of opportunities — and I think that should match the labor pool here. And hopefully we can train them up … to turn them into future managers or leaders within the company.”
That’s a far cry from the 2018 comments made by Kris Singh, the CEO of Holtec Intl., who moved his nuclear energy company to Camden with a whopping $260 million in tax breaks. Singh enraged residents when he said he was having trouble retaining local employees because the city lacks a culture of work.
“They can’t stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day,” Singh said. “They haven’t done it, and they didn’t see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it’s difficult.”
ResinTech, which is currently based in West Berlin, New Jersey, will use its new plant on Federal Street to make ion exchange resins that go into residential and commercial water treatment systems. ActionPak, an affiliated packaging company currently based in Bristol, Pa., will occupy a nearby 175,000-square-foot standalone building along River Road.
Under its tax-break agreement, the ResinTech family of companies has to create or retain 265 full-time jobs. But Gottlieb said the companies expect to employ more than 300 people once they’re fully operational, with another 125 to 200 “full-time temp” positions available based on production needs.
He also said the company will now be able to make many of the raw materials that it has been importing, primarily from China.
“That’s one thing that we’re very proud of, that we’re bringing manufacturing jobs to Camden, New Jersey,” he said. “It’s something that makes our project pretty special.”
Because the companies perform “essential” work, construction on the new headquarters has continued during the coronavirus pandemic. ActionPak got its certificate of occupancy two weeks ago. ResinTech is on track to start ramping up production later this summer.
Colon, the job applicant, said ResinTech’s arrival in Camden will remove a barrier for many residents trying to get good work.
“There are jobs out there but, you know, in Swedesboro, Florence, and if you have no transportation, it’s like, it’s not impossible, but it’s hard,” he said. “You end up working just to get back and forth.
Maureen Martin, ResinTech’s head of human resources, said the company has already hired 16 Camden residents in anticipation of its move, and she’s compiled a separate file labeled, “When we get to Camden.” ActionPak has hired another 17.
At a job fair at Camden’s Kroc Center in February, Martin was joined by Michael Douglas, a lifelong Camden resident who has worked at ResinTech for 13 years.
Douglas, 44, has been open about his past — how he was sent to juvenile detention at age 15 and cycled in and out of prison for the next 15 years. But since then, he has worked his way up from a warehouse line worker to a facility manager, overseeing more than 40 people.
He greeted each applicant with encouraging words.
“If you kind of think that you have a shaky kind of background and things like that, I’m the perfect person to say, ‘Hey, that does not matter,’” he said. “I know that those opportunities are real because I’m a living proof of that.”