Before elected officials voted on the Economic Opportunity Act, Coutinho told NJSpotlight, “The Senate president and (other) folks from South Jersey said we need to do more for it. Senator (Don) Norcross (D-Camden) was always trying to get more, more, more for Camden and wouldn’t sign off until he got enough that he was comfortable with.”
But for his part, Norcross is proud that he succeeded in pushing through provisions that favor South Jersey and Camden. Among them: a one-third lower minimum capital investment per square foot to qualify for incentives for rehabbing an industrial facility in any of the state’s eight southernmost counties ($13.33 per square foot vs. $20) ). Also part of the package: a requirement that a tech startup or manufacturer need to create only eight new full-time jobs to qualify for relevant incentives, as opposed to 12 elsewhere.
Companies locating in Camden have even lower minimum thresholds. Before the vote last spring, Norcross said of the startup and relocation packages for businesses, “Ninety-five percent of incentives under the old programs went to North Jersey. I think when this is passed you’ll see some tremendous interest in moving to the city.”
South Jersey, and Camden in particular, face realities that make it harder for the region to compete for large-scale business projects.
The first challenges, Norcross says, are population and geography. With a smaller population and a longer distance from New York City, South Jersey doesn’t offer as attractive a workforce or as convenient a location for companies considering locating or relocating there. The next challenge comes from South Jersey’s neighbor to the west: Philadelphia, which not only offers an extremely popular incentive program called the “Keystone Opportunity Zone,” but also Pennsylvania is less expensive than New York, so companies don’t face the same economic pressure to move to cheaper digs across the river.
“Trying to increase the incentives to bring somebody in is not only needed but warranted,” Norcross said. “We’ve tried everything else literally for decades. So now we’re going to try something else.”
On top of this, Camden has its own disadvantages. With a high crime and poverty rate, a crippled education system, and an infamous reputation, the beleaguered city struggles to compete for new business.
“It doesn’t matter how much or how little we’ve gotten over the past decades; no city in America has the conditions that Camden has,” said Norcross.
But Camden’s most noted historian disagrees that Camden needs public incentives to fund private projects. Howard Gillette, professor emeritus at Rutgers-Camden and author of Camden After the Fall, feels awards are politically driven and insensitive to the actual needs of the population.
“What’s bothersome about Camden -- and it’s a big, deep problem -- is that it’s a chessboard for outsiders to play their pieces to the absolute disinterest to the people who are most immediately affected. Fundamentally, it’s a system out of whack. The whole system is tilted toward development issues that don’t necessarily accommodate the nature, depth, and magnitude of the needs of the people of Camden.”
Gillette points to many proposed projects over the years -- some completed, some not -- that opened the door to private developers over the protests or concerns of residents. Most notable have been a hotly contested takeover of the waterfront Cramer Hill neighborhood (delayed indefinitely by lawsuits), the demolition of a historic yet long-abandoned Sears building to make way for a Campbell Soup Co.–led office park (in process), and the destruction of a waterfront prison to free up land that is being readied for the right developer to come along.
But it’s lots like the prison site that lead Norcross to argue that Camden boasts an amenity nearly extinct in other parts of the state: available land.
“We have something they will never have again,” he said.