The Economic Development Authority board moved the public portion of its monthly meeting to the front of the agenda yesterday. It’s been several months now since the embattled authority has been able to enjoy its usual low-key gatherings.
Since the comptroller’s report that alleged lax oversight and possible corruption at the EDA, activists and residents have been haranguing board members to open their books and to resign, more or less in that order. Tuesday’s meeting was not much different, with the added impact of Camden city residents testifying about how things there are much the same as they were before all the corporate towers were built.
“It’s not fair to the Camden residents that King George Norcross is taking all the public funds. He’s taking the funds for our public schools. He’s taking the funds for our supermarkets. His tyranny has got to stop,” said Camden resident Dana Salas.
By now, the story is familiar: Gov. Phil Murphy has picked a fight with Norcross, the aforementioned South Jersey powerbroker, over the nearly billion dollars in tax incentives received by companies in the Norcross orbit. Norcross has fired back, mocking the governor as overly regal and incompetent, hinting that someone might even run against him in a Democratic primary in a couple of years.
“Forget about politics, if we can, for 30 seconds. Forget about Republican and Democrat. Let’s look at the moral implications. It is immoral what is going on in Camden,” said Estina Baker, senior campaign lead for Communications Workers of America New Jersey.
‘…dismantling a community’
“What your vision is for Camden does not include the grassroots voice nor the people who will be directly impacted. What it concludes is the spirit of greed, a spirit of displacement, a spirit of racial tension, a spirit of giving children no hope, a spirit of dismantling a community that has a true value, that everyone in here knows the value because it’s all behind money,” said Camden resident Roncha Dickerson.
But Norcross and other Camden city leaders say the incentives are working. Look at the gleaming towers, they say. Look at the numbers: unemployment down, graduation rates up, crime down, incomes up. But the Camden residents at Tuesday’s hearing said that narrative is only half written.
“EDA put all these companies in — and I don’t know if this board has a right to speak, I’ll find out in a minute; is there a community-benefit clause that these companies come in and give back to the community? Because it’s in your mission statement so I need to know. Like normal, this board can’t answer questions, just listen, right?” asked Camden resident Stan White.
Board members reflect the philosophy of the governors who appoints them, generally, and so while the board of mostly Christie holdovers has rejected calls for them to step down, the incentive programs they administer are set to expire at the end of June. Activists see that as an opportunity to push for change.
One activist said that she was organizing a bus tour of the city of Camden — away from the waterfront projects — and asked if any board members would like to join them. Chairman Kevin Quinn and several other board members raised their hands and said that they would. That bus tour is scheduled for early June.