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Old November 10th @ 04:54 pm   #1
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From: In that old blue chair...

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Camden's waterfront - and its woes
N.J. vowed to revitalize the city. Today, job numbers are largely unchanged, but millions have gone to such "anchors" as Cooper, Campbell's, and the aquarium.
By Matt Katz

Inquirer Staff Writer

Second of four parts

Thanks to $25 million in recovery money, America's poorest city now has hippos.

The landmark 2002 Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act that put Camden under state control set aside $175 million for dozens of city projects. And none was larger, or more emblematic, than the $25 million expansion of the 10-year-old, state-owned aquarium.

The money bought the city a privatized aquarium with hippos, sharks, and a West African aviary. But it did not affect Camden's median income, the lowest of any medium-sized American city.

"Give us jobs, fix our schools," said Angel Cordero, a community activist. "Don't give us fish, let us fish."

Camden's residents were told the recovery would help to lift them out of poverty. The state's "strategic revitalization plan," the recovery's guide, even listed jobs as the No. 1 goal.

But it didn't turn out that way. Instead, most of the bailout money, $99 million, was allocated to the aquarium and other "anchor" institutions: tourist attractions, universities, hospitals, and government agencies.

"There was a trade-off," said Rutgers-Camden's Howard Gillette Jr.

"They gave some money to help expand the aquarium, but they expected something in return. They wanted private investment, and it's come very slowly. That's been the turnkey on each of these things - to get the private sector to do things that the public sector couldn't do."

Seven years later, these institutions have failed to create many jobs for residents or tax ratables for the city. Camden is far more dependent on state aid than before.

The law followed an old strategy of aiding the city by subsidizing its strengths, like the waterfront: Once the waterfront looked good, Camden's reputation would improve, luring investors, residents, and jobs.

"The waterfront has to be the engine of economic development," says Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., a recovery-law sponsor. "That's a gem. Patience has been tested, there's no question about it, but I think that's important."

Beyond the waterfront, the city's health and educational institutions - using an approach similar to the University of Pennsylvania's - were to be the newest saviors, with $31 million devoted to "eds and meds," including three colleges, two hospitals, and a planned medical school.

The expansion of two hospitals and Camden County College has clearly benefited city residents in direct ways. But it is unclear if such growth couldn't have happened without the state's extraordinary move of suspending the powers of the City Council and the mayor.

Roberts believes the takeover created the groundwork for the city's growth as a center of education and health care, and it has triggered so much else, like the recent closing of the state prison in North Camden.

"Has Camden been transformed as a city? Of course it has," he said.

Not according to the Rev. Willie Anderson.

"They've been giving us that crap for the last 30 years," said Anderson, chairman of Camden Churches Organized for People, which once supported the takeover. "The city looks worse than ever."

More than 40 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, and the tax base has shrunk.

Camden is the second most dangerous city in America and the poorest medium-sized city, according to national rankings. The city of 70,390 had 1,791 violent crimes in 2008, compared to 1,711 the year before the recovery began.

 
 

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