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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!