Commentary: Christie has helped Camden but the hard part is still ahead

  (AP Photo/Allen Oliver)

(AP Photo/Allen Oliver)

To nobody’s surprise, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has used his annual state of the state address to showcase the theme he is expected to emphasize should he embark on a widely anticipated run for president: getting results in a bipartisan manner. Given the amount of time and resources he has directed towards Camden (a Democratic stronghold) the past year, it should be no surprise either that he made achievements in that beleaguered city the lynchpin of his argument.

“There is no better example of what we can achieve if we put aside party and pettiness than the results we are seeing in Camden,” Christie declared. If crime can be reduced and investment dramatically increased in Camden, he suggested, so too the country can prosper. “I believe in a New Jersey renewal which can help lead to an American renewal both in every individual home and in homes around the world,” he concluded.

To emphasize this achievement, Christie invited Camden Mayor Dana Redd, her police chief Scott Thomson and school superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard to sit next the podium where they couldn’t be missed. 

Camden’s problems go well beyond matters of partisanship, and local critics have been quick to point out holes in the governor’s rosy picture of the city. It is undeniable, however, that  his initiatives have provided local leaders an opportunity to build on. But they can’t sit back and wait for Christie’s largely top-down initiatives to spur recovery.

Central to Christie’s vision have been generous tax incentives to businesses to locate in Camden.  Yet notably absent from the start of the rolling announcements have been plans to aid the home community.

No provision of the opportunity legislation requires companies relocating to Camden to hire locally. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Subaru, as it consolidates workers in an office park off of Admiral Wilson Boulevard, having any impact on the city as they commute daily to a facility quite separate from the rest of Camden

While one can imagine the 76ers opening up their facility on occasion to the city’s youth groups, team officials have been notably silent to date about any outreach efforts they might have in mind.

20150114-dana-redd-with-name-This can change. Camden Mayor Dana Redd must now announce her own set of initiatives to make the most of the state’s largess. What might that include?

Of course, setting up programs with new businesses to prepare Camden youth for employment in the city should be a priority, whether that comes in the form of apprentice programs or new initiatives in the schools and local universities. But there are other ways companies moving to Camden can assure that the opportunities they are embracing extend to local residents.

This could take a number of forms, starting with the creation of a Camden Community Chest that would build from business contributions in the form both of human and monetary capital. 

Some years ago, I spoke with employees of Campbell Soup who volunteered for a day of service at the Camden Children’s Garden. There was a lot of enthusiasm among the volunteers that day, and they accomplished a lot. Think how much more could happen if employees across the business spectrum had the opportunity throughout the year to give their time to address  prevailing social concerns. They could tutor children, participate in neighborhood clean-up sessions, and participate in helping coach or administer sports leagues.

Soliciting volunteer activity is one thing, but much more is needed.  Over the years Campbell Soup has been generous philanthropically. Among its most substantial programs has been a homeowners academy that has complemented community development efforts in Camden neighborhoods directed at rehabilitating homes and placing new homeowners in them. 

But to date philanthropy has not been transformative. The number of dollars and the number of contributors have not been large enough to keep up with need. Let the new companies in Camden take the lead in building a fund for human investment in the city. Surely the city’s anchor institutions—its educational and medical organizations—can join in to identify priorities: for better health, job training, and environmental remediation, among many possibilities.

20150114 cam connect 600It’s not enough to enlist philanthropy. The organization CamConnect, following the lead from Detroit, has developed a sophisticated data base for land use in Camden. With market demand stimulated by subsidies from Trenton, it’s now possible not just to anticipate new development but also to make sure through inclusive, neighborhood-based planning that it serves those in need. 

The city’s redevelopment agency has anticipated this opportunity through revitalization efforts near Cooper Hospital and in plans to remove unfit structures from other neighborhoods. To assure inclusion of a mix of new homeowners in revitalized neighborhoods, the mayor should enlist Camden based institutions to offer incentives to their workers to home ownership in the city. Such incentives used to exist at Rutgers. They should be revived for existing businesses and for those companies coming into the city.

Such initiatives nearly always raise the specter of gentrification. Camden, however, has lost nearly half the population at its peak. It cannot afford to abandon goals set some time ago to grow again, even to as much as 100,000 people. 

That doesn’t mean that such programs should advance at the expense of current residents. If newcomers are subsidized in new housing, so too should be those who aspire to becoming homeowners inside or outside the city.  For the latter, it’s essential that local officials embrace a region-wide affordable housing strategy, very much not on the current governor’s agenda. For Camden residents seeking to buy in the city, a pool of funding enabling more residents to be financially capable of taking advantage of home ownership should be secured as part of the redevelopment process .  

Other governors have touted their initiatives in Camden over the years, without managing to reverse the city’s decline. If this governor’s claims are to hold up, it won’t be due to his efforts   alone. Indeed, until the businesses he has favored throw their own considerable resources into the battle for renewal, not that much will change. 

By the time Mayor Redd gives her own state of the city address later this year, Governor Christie’s national aspirations should be clear. For now, then, it’s up to the mayor to spell out a full agenda for revitalization and to secure the necessary partners in the business community to help carry it out.   _________________________________________________

Howard Gillette is author of Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City and is professor of history emeritus at Rutgers Camden.

 

  

 

   

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