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What's Next For Camden After Its High-Profile Wins?

Subaru has opened its new American headquarters in Camden, American Water will do the same on Dec. 4, and the city hasn't had buzz like this in decades. So what is everyone supposed to do with it?

AthenianRazak CEO Jackie Buhn, Conifer Realty Regional Vice President Sam Leone and ATS Group President and CEO Damon Pennington

A combination of economic incentives and big gains in public safety numbers paved the way for the big corporate moves, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers and Holtec building new campuses and culminating in Subaru moving from Cherry Hill. Alongside those achievements, Rutgers University Camden is at an all-time high for enrollment, just completed a nursing school building and is kicking off a new business school building as well.

The business school will replace a methadone clinic on Fifth Street that was a sore spot for the area, Camden County Director of Communications Dan Keashen said at Bisnow's Seventh Annual Future of South Jersey event last week. The new construction brings Rutgers closer to downtown and mitigates the "insulated, siloed" relationship the campus had with Camden on the whole, he said.

The new headquarters and the growing "Eds and Meds" are bringing in an impressive number of jobs for Camden, but without residential and retail growth, they do little for the vibrancy of the city. For the "next wave" of revival, developers need to step up, Invincible City Architects principal Angelo Alberto said.

“The tax credit projects were awesome, the safety and educational moves were incredible; they raised the bar," Alberto said. "But now, can we really make this into what we would define as a truly inviting city?”

Developers like ATS Group President and CEO Damon Pennington are working hard to activate the city's streets.

“With more things to do, students will live on campus or off campus, rather than commute," Pennington said. "I’m a big proponent of bringing in young millennials and artsy people, because that’s the foundation of a new neighborhood, like they were for Northern Liberties [in Philadelphia]. If we can bring in the millennials and artsy people, then the people waiting for public safety will [follow them].”

Nexus Properties COO Dante Germano, NFI Director of Real Estate Troy Adams, Rittenhouse Appraisals principal Carlo Batts, Kislak Realty Senior Vice President Matt Weilheimer and Wells Fargo Senior Vice President Michael Mattera

Pennington's CFGB Inc. is currently constructing Camden Arts Yard, a beer garden decorated by local artists, on Market Street, after initially projecting a summer opening. The seasonal pop-up sits on a lot next to the incoming 315 Signature Restaurant, with the goal of anchoring a new "restaurant row," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer over the summer.

In terms of significant multifamily construction, Carl Dranoff built and then sold a couple of large apartment buildings close to the Camden waterfront, and other large developers like Conifer Realty have done work in pockets of Camden. But nothing remotely approaching the development wave seen in Philadelphia the last five years has happened so far.

“We’ve been involved in Camden for 20 years ago, and that’s been mostly in the southeastern part near the PATCO station, and we’d like to do more in Camden," Conifer Regional Vice President Sam Leone said. "The key has to be that the public safety is there and the elements that captivate residents have to be there. And it’s exciting that those things are coming into place, and it allows us to look more broadly at not just affordable vs. market-rate housing, but everything in between. We can take a true mixed-income approach that can service a broad spectrum of housing and the greater community.”

The much-publicized violent crime rate in Camden has fallen off dramatically. Last year, the city saw fewer homicides than it had in any year since 1988. Keashen said Downtown Camden is now "as secure as any Ivy League campus, and more so in some cases."

Time will have to tell if that brings more residents into the city, but at least in the case of Subaru, the office population is leaving the cafeteria for restaurants along Federal Street and in the Cramer Hill neighborhood, Keashen said.

"[Subaru employees] want to experience local restaurants, they want to get out and they want to engage with the community,” he said.

CORRECTION, NOV. 28, 2 P.M. ET: A previous version of this article misstated the status of Camden Arts Yard. This article has been updated.

City Invincible Architects principal Angelo Alberto, Camden County Director of Communications Dan Keashen, AthenianRazak CEO Jackie Buhn and Conifer Realty Regional Vice President Sam Leone

Though the Grow NJ tax incentive package will soon be no more, replaced by different policies, it has largely "done [its] job," AthenianRazak CEO Jackie Buhn said. If the new incentives don't have quite the pull, it may be offset by the new federal Opportunity Zone program. The entirety of Camden has been designated as a Qualified Opportunity Zone.

Opportunity zones are something Conifer has looked at across the Northeast," Leone said. "At first, it seemed too good to be true, but they just rolled out the first half of the rules and it seems like a great program without a lot of red tape. There seems to be a lot of investor interest in these opportunity zones, and now you can invest in communities you really believe in and get the capital gains benefits.”

Although questions remain about how effective such an open-ended policy can be in revitalizing a neighborhood, all panelists agreed that Camden, in part because of its desperate recent past, has been more friendly than most communities in the area to change and growth.

“The reason we’ve got to where we’re at is really due to bipartisanship, elected officials working together," Keashen said. "Depending on where you do business, that may not be the case. Everyone is pulling in the same direction here, from the federal down to the local level.”

That public collaboration has brought Subaru, Holtec and American Water to town, but it is a finite resource reserved mostly for the biggest headline grabbers. The block-to-block work of creating vibrant neighborhoods between huge hubs of development is where Camden's future hangs in the balance.

“For those who have heard this spiel about Camden's revival eight times, I can say that the emphasis really is on the next wave," Leone said. "One developer said to me, ‘Projects $5M and below, the true infill of the fabric with 20-30 unit buildings and a little mixed-use, that’s the challenge that has to be met in the next phase.’”

Pennington spoke of one of his smaller buildings leasing retail space to a flower shop as exemplary of this new phase. As he sees it, they represent the basic retail elements that take a street from more than a thoroughfare between offices with a coffee shop or two to a living, breathing neighborhood corridor.

“People asked me, ‘Why are you bringing a flower shop to Camden?’ And we say that Camden is a blank canvas with about 2,500 new workers coming into the city daily," Pennington said. "If you can’t bring in small businesses for people to get daily needs beyond just a sandwich, you really have a problem.”