Is This Camden’s Chance for a Comeback?

The latest effort to resuscitate the New Jersey city isn't relying on tax giveaways alone.
January 6, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Bribery, in the form of tax incentives, is hardly the basis of good economic-development policy, but when things get as bad as they have in Camden, N.J., the usual rules go out the window. Time will tell whether state and city official have been skillful enough in applying the lessons learned from previous failures to make the latest efforts to resuscitate the city a success.

Last year the New Jersey Economic Development Authority granted $614 million in tax credits to six projects designed to attract, create or retain 2,000 jobs in Camden. The city can certainly use them. The Campbell's Soup Co. has 1,200 employees in Camden; 1 percent of them -- that's 12 people -- actually live in the city. Out of 77,000 residents, nearly 40 percent, about twice the national average, are below the federal poverty level. And according to FBI data, Camden was the most dangerous city of its size in the country last year.

This isn't the first effort to bring public-sector largesse to bear on efforts to revitalize Camden. During the 1990s, for example, boosters promised that a new waterfront built with public money along the Delaware River, which separates Camden from Philadelphia, would produce thousands of jobs. City residents are still waiting.

This time Subaru, military contractor Lockheed Martin, and a maker of parts for nuclear-power plants are among the companies that will benefit from tax credits. Generally speaking, credits are bad policy because government is rarely adept at determining who should get them and they usually mean other companies and/or individuals have to make up the foregone tax revenue.

That's why it's encouraging to see that tax incentives are no longer the entire strategy for Camden. In the current effort, state and local officials are pairing state enticements with a focus on fixing some of the city's underlying problems. Public safety is certainly high on that list. Camden County took over the city's police force in 2013 and put more cops on the streets. With about a month left in 2014, the city had 28 homicides, down from 58 for all of 2012. Last summer, violent crime was down 70 percent from the summer of 2013.

Unemployment is also down, although a reduction to 16 percent from 19 percent in 2010 is hardly reason to celebrate when the national rate is less than 6 percent.

Nevertheless, the new round of tax credits already has produced some encouraging signs. The city's first market-priced apartment project in over a decade is under construction. Though tax credits will cover about 40 percent of the cost, the developers are still wagering their own money that there will be enough demand to fill the 59 units.

And Camden once again has a supermarket, so residents are no longer forced to shop in high-priced convenience stores. The Price Rite Market opened in October and demand is reportedly strong.

Once things sink as low as they have in Camden, the options for renewal are rarely appealing and there are few alternatives to tools like tax credits that might be unwise under less-dire circumstances. Let's hope that city and New Jersey officials have learned enough to use them judiciously and craft policies that will bring jobs to Camden -- and maybe even persuade some of those new employees to live in the city.