Camden Rebounds After Multi-Decade Decline
For most of the past five decades, Camden, New Jersey, was a symbol of all that was wrong with urban America. These days, though, the city of 74,000 in the shadow of Philadelphia is making headlines for all the right reasons.
The city was “essentially socially and economically isolated for 50 years” as its industrial base and population shrunk, according to Kris Kolluri, the CEO of the nonprofit Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. Three Camden mayors in 20 years went to prison on corruption charges. The city’s crime rate was among the highest in the U.S., and its school system was failing.
“During that time, not only did the city and its residents see disinvestment, but the only investment that seemed to find its way into the city is what I would call socially undesirable,” Kolluri said during an Aug. 6 Bisnow webinar on Camden. “What has happened since around 2012 is a fundamental change.”
Take public safety. Camden closed down its corruption-plagued police department in 2012 and replaced it with a county-based model that emphasized community policing. The investment paid off. During the recent civil unrest, Camden police officers marched in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters. According to Kollluri, the city’s crime rate has plummeted.
“In 2012, there were 67 homicides in the city of Camden. Today, because of a reform of the police department and the way policymakers reimagined the police department, crime and public safety is at the best the city has been in 50 years,” he said.
The city’s schools are also improving. The city’s graduation rate is now nearly 70%, compared with 49% a few years ago. Its dropout rate has fallen by nearly half, from 21% to 11%, according to Kolluri.
Progress hasn’t come cheap. There has been about $2.5B invested in Camden during the past decade, Kolluri noted.
“It isn’t just about building buildings, which are representative of progress. We have built an infrastructure. We have built parks. We have built brand-new schools — $465M worth of schools.”
Commercial real estate development has surged in Camden, thanks in part to developers such as the Michaels Organization, which last year relocated to Camden and is going all-in on the city, according to Vice President for Development Nick Cangelosi. The company has about 800 homes either under construction or that are recently completed. It has plans for another 400 homes in the East Camden neighborhood of Cramer Hill.
Philip Borst, a principal in the construction management firm Scungio, Borst & Associates, has had a ringside seat to Camden’s transformation during the 18 years his firm has called the city home. He credits former Mayor Dana Redd with having the courage to overhaul the Camden Police Department, which has gotten renewed attention from the national media in the wake of the protest about the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
“For us, it’s been a privilege to be here,” Borst said.
ResinTech, a maker of ion exchange resins used in water treatment, is another believer in Camden. The company outgrew its headquarters in West Berlin and this summer moved into a new, larger space in East Camden. Though initially the company was lured to the city by the availability of the New Jersey Grow tax credits, ResinTech is also planning to build a manufacturing facility to bring manufacturing back to the U.S., according to CEO Jeffrey Gottlieb.
“There is a great opportunity for us to hire so many Camden residents,” he said. “We have just fallen in love with the East Camden neighborhood of Cramer Hill. Everybody has been great.”