Camden’s first hotel in 50 years opens its doors — in a pandemic

Hilton Garden Inn Camden Waterfront opened on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, becoming the first hotel in Camden in more than 50 years. (Emma Lee/WHYY

Hilton Garden Inn Camden Waterfront opened on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, becoming the first hotel in Camden in more than 50 years. (Emma Lee/WHYY

Hotels open all the time.

But for a distressed city working toward economic revitalization that hasn’t seen a new one in decades, the opening of the Hilton Garden Inn Camden Waterfront on Friday was regarded as a major milestone.

“It just means that there is confidence here. That there is opportunity here. That Camden was worthy of building a Hilton,” said Mayor Frank Moran. “It’s a big deal.”

Camden Mayor Frank Moran cuts the ribbon for the new Hilton Garden Inn on the Camden waterfront. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Officials and hotel workers gathered in the late morning rain to cut the ribbon on the new, 180-room property in the shadow of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Not only was it a celebration of another job-creating business starting up in the city, but it is also the first hotel to open in Camden in over 50 years.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation. This is never gonna happen again,” said Bill Kao, the hotel’s general manager. “The next hotel that comes in will be the second hotel.”

Hilton Garden Inn general manager Bill Kao (left) gives a guided tour of the new hotel to Camden Mayor Frank Moran. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Hilton Garden Inn is part of the mixed-use waterfront property helmed by NFI, the Michaels Organization, and Conner Strong & Buckelew — the insurance firm led by South Jersey Democratic power player George Norcross that won a state tax break to relocate.

According to hotel officials, the Hilton Garden Inn Camden Waterfront is expected to generate more than $1 million in state and local tax revenue each year.

Many of the 180 guest rooms at the Camden Waterfront Hilton Garden Inn offer views of the Delaware River and Philadelphia skyline. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The hotel is opening at an inauspicious time. The monthslong COVID-19 pandemic has forced scores of people to skip nonessential travel, which has hit the hospitality industry particularly hard.

“People are losing jobs,” Kao said. “Hotels are closing all throughout the country.”

But in Camden, people — including locals — are finding work.

Camden resident Maria Zambrana, 57, was laid off from her job at a Mount Laurel hotel because of the pandemic.

Camden resident Maria Zambrana found work as a housekeeper at the new Hilton Garden Inn on the Camden waterfront. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

With her unemployment benefits set to run out, Zambrana landed a job as a housekeeper at the new Hilton, which is closer to her home.

“I love it,” she said with a laugh. “Not everybody got the opportunity or the blessing to get a job.”

The dining room at the new Hilton Garden Inn in Camden offers views of the Delaware River and the Ben Franklin Bridge. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Of the bare-bones 19-person staff — smaller because of the pandemic — six workers are Camden residents, Kao said.

The hotel is working with the local program Camden Works, which connects jobless residents with employment, and intends to continue hiring from inside the city.

The new Camden Hilton Garden Inn has a 1,300-square-foot fitness center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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