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Are Camden’s Millions in Tax Incentives Benefiting Residents?

In poor city, praise for the economic opportunity the incentives spur, but some have doubts

Camden resident Ladeen Hornsby began working at My Auto Store 10 months ago. “Five minute drive from my house. My kids are on my insurance plan, that’s fantastic. It’s a great environment. I learned a new trade. I got a new trade under my belt. I mean it’s a fast-paced work environment. This is my type of place,” Hornsby said.

My Auto Store revved up last year in Camden with a $133-million tax incentive from the Economic Development Authority’s Grow NJ program.

“Without that grant we never would have been able to even attempt what we’re doing here today,” said Joe Balzano, CEO of EMR Eastern, which owns My Auto Store.

The business buys cars from auction, drains the fluids, dismantles the vehicles for parts, tags the parts, sells them online, and pancakes what’s left to be shredded and melted.

My Auto Store employs 200 workers, half from Camden. It’s looking to hire, train and retain dozens more from the area in the recycling businesses it’s planning in six surrounding buildings. The mayor wants new jobs created through the Grow NJ incentives to be equally available to Camden residents after the city has shed the label as the “most dangerous” in America by lowering crime, improving schools and attracting businesses.

Pushback to criticism in comptroller’s audit

“The responsibility falls on us to make sure the pathway for residents is as clean as possible so they can take advantage of it,” said Kris Kolluri, president and CEO of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership.

For a company to qualify for Grow NJ tax incentives, it must meet certain standards for job creation and minimum company investments. But five distressed cities have a lower set of standards. Camden is one of them.

Rutgers’ Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy found it cost about five times more than the state average to create such a job in Camden and recommended the state revise the rules “to tie awards more closely to the employment created by the firms.”

The Legislature plans to revise the program after a state comptroller’s audit blasted Grow NJ for lack of oversight, transparency and more. After pushback, Gov. Phil Murphy clarified in his State of the State speech criticism of the program. He said he didn’t have Camden in mind. Camden leaders insist criticism should be based on facts.

“Each one of our employers in Camden City have met or exceeded the number of employees from Camden City that they were supposed to hire,” said Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli Jr.

Residents: ‘What about us?’

Grow NJ awards helped Subaru move from Cherry Hill to near the waterfront. Other awards top $1.5 billion for companies likely to move to the area. Camden business recruiters say they have reason to be defensive when it comes to criticism for getting tax incentives.

“Do you know how much Camden actually got in those 20 years?” asked Kolluri. “Less than 3 percent.”

Still, there are lots of signs of the need for urban renewal in Camden as the city reaps the benefits of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives. And residents ask, “What about us?”

Lettie Draine is upset that with all the money flowing to corporate Camden and tax revenues filling the city’s coffers, more than 100 crossing guards have been without a contract for two years.

“We’re looking for a raise. We’re out here suffering through in the cold, all types of weather, we’re here. We love our children, but we’re not being treated fair,” said Draine, a shop steward in the city’s crossing-guard unit for the Local 1014 CWA union. “We feel left out. We are left out.”

Both critics and business leaders say My Auto Store and its parent company EMR exemplify the mindset of developers looking to transform the city. A recent study found just over 10 percent of employees of major tax-break companies are Camden residents.

“We are not going to rest until every single neighborhood and every single resident has an opportunity to participate in this growth,” said Kolluri.

“So now there’s a lot of people getting opportunity from the city to showcase their skill set, to show people that they are able and willing to come to work every day and just give a different perspective of a Camden resident,” Hornsby said.

Hornsby says he’s proof of that.

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