A short documentary on the current dilemma that countless Americans are facing, from those on the streets, to those who simply cannot afford housing on their low wage jobs within a crippled economy.
A short documentary on the current dilemma that countless Americans are facing, from those on the streets, to those who simply cannot afford housing on their low wage jobs within a crippled economy.
Posted: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 7:10 am
TRENTON – U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg is calling for a federal investigation into allegations that Chris Christie, the Republican candidate for governor in New Jersey, used the office of U.S. attorney for political gain.
The call for a Justice Department investigation follows accusations that Christie politicized the office of the top federal prosecutor while serving there for seven years in the Bush administration. Lautenberg is asking the Justice Department to look into whether the U.S. attorney’s office aided Christie’s campaign after he resigned in December to run for governor.
Christie has been dogged for months by the allegations of inside politicking, which would violate Department of Justice policy and federal law.
The allegations against Christie reached a higher pitch Monday when The New York Times reported that a top aide in the prosecutor’s office, Michele Brown, may have tried to steer the timing of a large corruption bust to benefit Christie’s campaign and that she interceded to block potentially damaging travel records from being released.
“It is shocking to learn that a former deputy to Chris Christie was conducting a political campaign within the U.S. attorney’s Office,” Lautenberg said in a statement. “It was particularly distressing that this raw political agenda came into an office with a historic reputation for fair and unbiased dispensation of justice, and Ms. Brown went so far as to try to bring political campaign objectives into the planning of law enforcement actions.”
Christie denied the charges.
“There are a lot of presumptions being made that don’t have the facts to back them up,” Christie said Monday.
“The question was did she give any aid to my campaign, and the answer is ‘no.’ As to the specific questions that were raised in the entire story, I’ll take Michele’s word for it, it looks like she said in the story that the allegations were ‘outrageous’ and ‘inaccurate.”‘
Brown declined to comment when reached Tuesday.
Christie mounted a strong challenge to incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, but has seen his lead evaporate as Democrats have hounded him on a signature issue – government ethics. Polls now show the race deadlocked with two weeks to go.
Corzine, like Lautenberg, said it appears that there were efforts within the U.S. Attorney’s office, even after Christie left, to advance his political career.
“If I were unkind, I would say it was a branch office of the campaign,” Corzine said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Corzine said there were earlier examples, too: He said issuing a subpoena to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez two months before his 2006 election was a political act.
Christie earlier acknowledged having conversations with Bush strategist Karl Rove about a possible run for governor, which may have violated a law restricting political activity by federal employees.
Unnamed federal law enforcement officials told The Times that Brown, who had borrowed $46,000 from Christie to settle credit card debt in 2007, yielded her influence inside the U.S. attorney’s office to aid Christie’s election bid.
The sources said Brown was the lone voice within the prosecutor’s office arguing for more than 40 people targeted in a corruption and money-laundering case be arrested before July 1 so that Christie could reap the credit. The sources also said she took over a request by the Corzine campaign for public records from Christie’s tenure, including travel records for him and Brown.
The release of those records showed Christie and Brown stayed at some of the country’s most upscale hotels. The tab to taxpayers occasionally exceeded $400 per night.
Brown resigned in August after news of the loan – and her ongoing financial relationship with Christie – emerged. She took a job with a Mooristown law firm that had represented one of the medical manufacturing companies Christie had investigated for medical fraud.
On Tuesday, Christie said acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra decided when to bring cases, not Brown.
Marra declined to comment, as did U.S. Attorney’s office spokesman Michael Drewniak.
on July 25, 2009 at 6:37 AM, updated July 25, 2009 at 12:32 PM
TRENTON — Former Sen. Wayne Bryant, once a titan of New Jersey politics, was sentenced Friday to four years in federal prison for trading his clout as budget chairman for a low-work job to boost his taxpayer-funded pension.
In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Freda Wolfson in Trenton said public officials need to understand they cannot use their office for their own personal gain.
“You’re not going to get a walk when you engage in this kind of activity,” she said.
Bryant, who served more than a quarter century in the Legislature, told the judge that if he could turn back time, he would do things differently.
“I cannot express how deeply sorry I am for the scorn my actions have caused,” said Bryant, who choked up while apologizing for his crimes.
A jury convicted Bryant (D-Camden) of 12 counts of pension fraud and bribery eight months ago, after a high profile trial that exposed a secretive and easily manipulated state budget process.
Bryant, who left office in 2007, helped steer $10.5 million in state grants to his employer, a school within the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Now he will have to pay $113,167 in restitution to UMDNJ and a $25,000 fine.
Wolfson said Bryant gave up his impartiality as a legislator when he accepted the low-show, $35,000-a-year job at UMDNJ in exchange for his influence, even if he intended to help his constituents by steering money to the school.
“It was the manner by which it was undertaken to subvert the system,” the judge said.
Wolfson also chided Bryant for his “low-show” job as a part-time attorney for the Gloucester County Board of Social Services – which helped to raise his pension from $28,000 to $81,000 a year. She said his actions were improper, despite his argument other attorneys also sent law firm associates to complete such work.
“It won’t fly,” Wolfson said. “Because ultimately to obtain a pension you have to do the work.”
Wolfson also sentenced former UMDNJ dean R. Michael Gallagher to a year-and-a-half in federal prison for bribing Bryant with the $35,000-a-year job at the university’s School of Osteopathic Medicine in Camden County.
His attorneys had requested he only receive house arrest and community service, so he could care for his mother, wife and sister, who all have health problems.
“I am so remorseful for having been involved in this,” said Gallagher. “I’ve regretted it every day of my life since.”
Gallagher also must pay a fine of $15,000 and $113,167 in restitution.
Gov. Jon Corzine said Bryant’s punishment is a warning to those state and local officials involved in illegal acts.
“Public corruption on any level cannot be tolerated, and any official who engages in such practices must be prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law,” said Corzine. “It is my hope that this still sends a clear message that public officials who break the law will go to jail.”
More than 100 people packed into the courtroom during the eight hours of court proceedings, including a string of friends and clergymen who pleaded for Bryant’s leniency.
The Rev. John A. Jones urged the judge to “be merciful today.” “His good has far out-distanced the bad,” Jones said.
Bryant endured the sudden death of his only child, Wayne Jr., 37, in 2006, “a sentence within itself,” Jones said.
Former Camden Mayor and State Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Randy Primas came from South Carolina to describe how “courageous” Bryant was for introducing welfare reform in the early 1990s that demanded more accountability from clients.
“Wayne Bryant gets up everyday to make life better for the less fortunate,” Primas said.
Wolfson said she took those words into account when administering Bryant’s sentence.
“A larger sentence,” said Wolfson, “would ignore many of the personal characteristics and your personal history.”
The sentencing came one day after federal law enforcement announced public corruption and money-laundering busts that swept up 44 people on Thursday, including two assemblymen, four mayors and several rabbis.
Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra referred to the sweeping corruption, saying that Bryant was “one of the architects” of the “crooked world” in New Jersey politics.
Statehouse Bureau reporters Mary Fuchs and Susan K. Livio contributed to this report.
The success in turning around Chelsea, Mass., can be attributed in part to consistent support from mayors around the region, according to Jim Carlin, the first Chelsea overseer.
Such support did not exist in Camden.
The takeover law in New Jersey mandated the creation of a Regional Impact Council that would have a vote on the Economic Recovery Board, which distributed recovery dollars.
But the council folded after one meeting; its representative on the board, Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, resigned; and suddenly, the region forfeited its participatory role in Camden’s recovery.
Instead, it just subsidizes the city with its state tax dollars.
“It just wasn’t clear what the purpose was, and it was supposed to get set up with some staff, and then” the state budget crisis hit, Maley said. “It just really never get off the ground.”
Peter O’Connor, the father of affordable-housing laws in New Jersey, said the council met only once because there is no appetite for regional solutions.
“What it would take is strong political leadership, and that leadership, although present, is not present on those issues,” he said.
O’Connor said Camden can be saved only with an “out-migration” of up to half of its poor people to the suburbs, which must build more affordable housing, and an “in-migration” of the middle class to the city, which has bled population and has plenty of space.
Such a plan, though, is politically impossible.
“When you have the political leadership of the region opposing it, namely the suburban interests, that’s the problem with Camden,” he said.
Camden increased its number of affordable housing units only during the recovery, in direct contradiction to the law, which stipulated market-rate housing.
But the first chief operating officer of Camden, Melvin R. “Randy” Primas Jr., said he was in a Catch-22: Without existing middle-class housing, middle-class people won’t move in. But without the middle class, there is no market.
He tried to redevelop a section of Camden, Cramer Hill, into waterfront market-rate homes, but the community objected to the planned use of eminent domain and the displacement of families. The plan ended up getting thrown out of court.
“When [Gov. Corzine] took the position that he didn’t want to support the use of eminent domain, then lights out for Camden as far as I’m concerned,” Primas said.
A handful of market-rate homes will never save the city, he said.
“It’s going to continue to be inhabited by those folks at the end of the economic ladder,” he said. “And you can’t have thriving cities with folks who aren’t working.” – Matt Katz
Third of four parts
James Reilly sips morning coffee on his new front porch so he can watch the sunrise glow upon the looming Ben Franklin Bridge.
On the weekends, the 34-year-old Manayunk transplant and his new wife, Maria Nasidka, play tennis at the courts across the street and go for long runs along the Delaware River. They organize friends for coed football games at the nearby Rutgers University fields and walk to minor-league Riversharks games. Then they return home to three bedrooms, four bathrooms, 2,300 square feet, and a backyard of suburban proportions.
All this, in Camden – a city with one of the worst reputations in America – for the bargain price of $217,000 and the cheapest property taxes around.
These newlyweds are a rare realization of the vision set forth in the 2002 recovery law that put Camden City government under state control and funneled $175 million in bonds and loans to the city.
Although the law said market-rate housing to accommodate middle-class people was “critical,” things didn’t work out that way. Most of the $48 million appropriated to residential projects was targeted to low-income renters.
“The ratio is skewed; too much is going to affordable housing,” acknowledged Theodore Z. Davis, the former Camden chief operating officer. “You’ll never grow.”
The newlyweds’ community is a remarkable exception, and it shows the potential that the city has for middle-class growth.
Their home is part of a $10.4 million, 18-home middle-income housing project funded with $1.2 million from the Camden recovery fund. The theory? Offering $100,000 home subsidies could entice employed professionals to a city that has lost middle-class families since the 1950s.
“I could never have imagined the peace of mind I have being here,” Reilly said. “I love living here.”
He’s awestruck over the community feel – with an active neighborhood e-mail chain, a recent mayoral candidates’ forum, and a neighbor’s generosity in lending a power tool.
“It’s so personal,” he said of his neighbors. “It’s almost like [Camden] is their baby that they’re rooting for.”
The homes between Rutgers-Camden and the waterfront sold almost as soon as they hit the market last winter. “Middle-income people will pay a premium to get a good house in a good neighborhood in Camden,” said Frank Fulbrook of the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association, which developed the project with Pennrose Properties.
Each property was subsidized by about a third, with a 10-year residency requirement. Plus, for each of the first 15 years, the newlyweds will pay a “service charge” of about $4,340 instead of taxes. That’s three times less than the taxes of some of their suburban neighbors.
This money only goes to the city’s coffers, and not the schools’ or the county’s, but it’s an effective enticement for buyers.
Such recovery-funded enticements are also used for businesses, and they helped to bring both a new Rita’s Water Ice to the neighborhood and Victor’s Pub, the city’s nicest bar, which has built a lunch crowd with workers from the waterfront offices.
This slow uptick in improvements has stoked new residents’ enthusiasm and helped strengthen their commitment to Camden – even if people who live in Cherry Hill say they’re “crazy” for moving to a city known as one of the country’s poorest and most dangerous.
“I always have to give them a pitch to tell them what it’s all about,” Nasidka said, gushing about biking to Philadelphia and walking to shows at Wiggins Park and Susquehanna Bank Center.
There’s no nearby supermarket, but, they say, they would have to drive to a market if they lived in Mount Laurel, too.
A few blocks north is an active drug area, but, Nasidka said, “If you’re in Rittenhouse and go a couple of blocks in the wrong direction, you’re not in such a good neighborhood, either.”
Several police departments patrol the area, and Reilly says he’s “safer in Camden than I was in Manayunk,” where his car was broken into twice.
“A city is a city.”
The couple eats at Latin restaurants in East Camden where there’s little English on the menus. Their neighbors include a city firefighter, a Cooper University Hospital emergency room doctor, and Rutgers-Camden professors.
For a couple looking to have a family and interested in a high-quality education, Camden public schools – among the worst in the state in every indicator – are currently not an option.
But, Reilly said, “if we were in Philadelphia, I might not want to send my kids to the schools” there, either.
He said he’d consider charter or private schools. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this city, this location, is going to improve over the next 10 years,” Reilly said.
And, he believes, he’ll be around – perhaps with little ones playing horseshoes in the massive backyard – to see it happen.
Her five children moved. Twice, cars crashed into the living room, leaving craters in the wall. Next door, the church burned down.
But Marie Brown stayed at the corner of 28th and High Streets in East Camden. Across the street, her friend and neighbor Dorothy Threat stayed, too. And their loyalty was recently rewarded.
In an innovative, nationally recognized home-improvement program funded in part by recovery dollars, longtime Camden residents current on their taxes are being awarded with $20,000 home-improvement projects.
The workers “did a beautiful job,” said Brown, 71, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and lives on Social Security. “I appreciate everything everybody does for me, like these people here.”
The Camden Home Improvement Program (CHIP) is highly successful, officials and civic activists say, thanks to $5 million in funding from the state recovery and an additional $2.85 million from other state and city funds.
Homes in Camden are so old, though, and residents are so poor, that this money has not been enough. And it is just a piece of the $24 million that the group Camden Churches Organized for People requested in 2005 when it complained that recovery money was skipping over the neighborhoods.
With 200 homes covered by the recovery plan’s portion of the money, and with more than 500 homeowners on a waiting list, Brown’s good fortune could have been replicated many times over, and sooner, with more funding.
Brown moved into her five-bedroom home in 1973 after fleeing the fires in North Camden, and thought she was “in heaven.” But her house – which once included a grocery store downstairs – has 33 windows and no adjacent neighbors, so it is vulnerable to the wind. Some winters have been so cold that Brown couldn’t use the washing machine because the pipes had frozen.
So CHIP replaced 10 of the windows, and now Brown’s heating bills are down more than 50 percent, she said. A supply closet was rebuilt, the front of the house was power-washed, and the gutters were replaced.
Brown found out about CHIP from her neighbor and occasional partner in prayer, the 73-year-old Threat. Widowed, Threat bought her three-bedroom house from her parents 30 years ago and then raised nine of her 11 children there. After her husband died, she became a nurse to support the family.
Since suffering a stroke, money has been tight and she hasn’t kept up with the house. So CHIP installed a new back door, banisters and smoke alarms, the home’s first.
“They did lots – I am not complaining one bit,” she said in her singsong voice. “I am grateful. It really has been a blessing to me.”
Part of the intention of the program is to inspire other neighbors to fix their own homes, and sure enough, after CHIP fixed Threat’s sidewalks, two neighbors had their own sidewalks repaired.
Yet Scotch tape still holds together the glass on the front door. And when the washing machine is on, water leaks on the laundry-room floor and pours outside. Clearly, this old house needed more than $20,000.
But for Camden’s most committed residents, any help is welcome. “Whatever you get, be appreciative, be thankful,” Brown said. “Believe me.”
Alexis was a Camden High School sophomore, fighting at school, running the streets, dealing with what she described as an anger problem. I “do what I do,” she said.
Sister Gigi found Alexis on the streets. “Do you want to join us?” she asked.
Gigi is an outreach coordinator for the Unity Community Center – an organization of 150 praise-dancing, drum-beating, karate-kicking, stilt-walking, brass-playing, military-marching Camden kids.
“Do you want to join us?” she asked Alexis, again and again.
Months passed, and Alexis relented. Last spring she nervously walked into the dilapidated community center and watched a braided, tattooed woman tap a drumbeat on a 6-year-old boy’s shoulders: Boom, ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom.
Boom, ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom, the boy responded, as the beat flowed through his arms for the first time.
And with this, Alexis pulled up a chair and joined UCC.
From saving a girl headed down a dark path to teaching a boy the joy of music, UCC believes it uses martial arts, jazz, and dance to make miracles every day. But despite its 26 years of service, the organization was unable to wrestle a dime from the $175 million Camden recovery fund.
One longtime civic activist in Camden, Andy Thomas, said in an interview before he died this summer: “These kids are the best things to happen in Camden in 50 years.”
Out of a dingy storefront on a particularly ugly stretch of Mount Ephraim Avenue, UCC offers children a chance, usually free, to find self-confidence and discipline. The youths have performed concerts at gubernatorial inaugurations in Trenton, World Cafe Live in West Philadelphia, and a pageant in Gambia. UCC is Camden’s biggest, and most improbable, cultural export.
Three years ago, founders Robert and Wanda Dickerson submitted a several-hundred-page application for a $1 million grant from the recovery fund to renovate a 6,000-square-foot former auto shop that was donated to the group. A $1 million request for a Boys & Girls Club and $5 million for a Salvation Army center had already been approved.
Although the UCC proposal never came up for a vote or public deliberation, officials say the organization wasn’t financially viable, so it was rejected.
There were tax liens from outstanding water bills at the new property, which UCC says are erroneous – because there are no pipes. There were property taxes owed because UCC had failed to submit its tax-exemption form for a couple of years (it is current now).
And there were repeated questions about matching funds. Officials favored projects with other funding sources, which residents complained effectively eliminated grassroots groups.
“It’s like we’re really living in an illusion, it’s a mirage,” Gigi said. “And to have $175 million come into the city – $175 million! – and we haven’t gotten any support? . . . You go to one part of the city, by the waterfront, and you think you’re in Hollywood. You go to another side of the city and it’s Beirut, a war zone.”
Former Camden COO Davis said that he worked with the group but that it failed to get its paperwork and finances in order: “A lot of people are more hell-bent on crying and complaining than doing something.”
UCC has never relied on government funds to operate. Its leaders say they tried to adjust their application to accommodate concerns over their expansion proposal.
The City Council approved a resolution this year absolving UCC of its liens, and the Camden County sheriff – who is in charge of tax sales – even appeared to show support. Each City Council member then handed a signed copy of the resolution to a UCC child.
In state-run Camden, though, a city councilman’s signature is just an autograph. A week later, Davis called the council’s resolution “meaningless.”
UCC is now trying to raise private funds to renovate its building, which it got in 2000. It puts on more than 400 performances a year, but those fees go back into the program, not the building.
“This is a powerful story to show how government went astray in the process of helping poor people,” said Roy Jones, an activist who wrote UCC’s application.
Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 856-779-3919 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
“Everybody’s still living in terror,” Anderson said, bluntly. “The communities are under siege.”
Residents don’t quibble with most of the projects that were funded. But where were the priorities?
How, they ask, can the state spend $11 million on a law school while failing to fulfill a recovery-law stipulation that unsafe homes be knocked down? And how, they wonder, can $2.3 million go to new infrastructure for an expanded Campbell Soup world headquarters when $20 million in neighborhood infrastructure work is canceled?
The riverfront has always been the city’s center. Ferry service to Philadelphia began in colonial times, and by the 1800s industrial factories changed Camden’s waterfront into a potent economic hub.
That way of life ended in the mid-20th century, as new highways and a post-industrial economy turned the waterfront into a symbol of decline. Ferries stopped in 1952.
Using Baltimore as a model, South Jersey politicians and activists have since sought to give Camden new life by converting the waterfront into a destination. According to Msgr. Michael Doyle, the water is the city’s “treasure.” He believes that residents of a city on a river must have access to their water.
And that’s why he supports the waterfront effort – including the aquarium expansion – even as he opposes the political takeover.
“We needed to open up this treasure we have,” he said. “It creates a stage to say, ‘We are here.’ ”
Since 1992, when the aquarium opened, ferry service has resumed and the waterfront has added the Susquehanna Bank Center concert arena, the USS New Jersey, a Children’s Garden, and the Campbell’s Field baseball stadium.
The state takeover sought to build on these existing strengths. And so if waterfront visitors today look out the car window on the way into town, they might glimpse the takeover’s winners – and losers.
Visitors from Philadelphia turn off the Ben Franklin Bridge into the historic downtown, where Rutgers-Camden Law School – thanks in part to recovery money – has opened new classrooms.
They might see the rehabilitated neighborhood of Cooper Grant, the restored Johnson Park, and maybe even the new scoreboard at Campbell’s Field, the Rutgers-owned minor-league stadium. The recovery funded all of those projects.
Then there’s the eyesore on Cooper Street with a tree growing through it – the planned Radio Lofts, awarded $2 million for condo conversion three years ago, but delayed for environmental cleanup.
Across the street is the Board of Education, which presides over some of the worst graduation rates and test scores statewide. The board is controlled by the governor, as per the recovery law, but no money was earmarked for the district.
Pass the school board and find an expanse of parking lots on the waterfront where a state trooper is often stationed to protect the tourist attractions – while the rest of the city faces an unprecedented police shortage. Waterfront lots are among six parking projects funded with millions in recovery dollars.
One lot was built for state employees at Riverfront State Prison, which is now shuttered. A sixth of the recovery money finances state entities like this – including the South Jersey Port Corp. and a new state office building.
Some parking lots were intended to be placeholders for a future Camden “town center” called Cooper’s Crossing. Steiner + Associates, a Camden County Democratic donor and Ohio-based builder that controls development rights for 30 waterfront acres until at least 2017, plans six restaurants, dozens of stores, a hotel, 1,500 residential units, a recorded-sound museum, and at least three office buildings.
So far, visitors will find only one element of Cooper’s Crossing – the Ferry Terminal Building, the first privately financed office structure in the city in nearly a half-century, and touted as a key recovery accomplishment. The building is 85 percent filled with tenants, thanks in part to recovery-funded lease incentives, but a long-awaited anchor restaurant has yet to move in.
The other parts of Cooper’s Crossing are on schedule, say Steiner and the state, and are coming soon.
Next door to the Ferry Terminal Building, visitors snap cell-phone pictures of the Philadelphia skyline before going through the aquarium entrance, which now faces Philadelphia instead of Camden.
Once inside, they leave the downtrodden city behind, and they never really return. The old New Jersey State Aquarium at Camden has a new name, Adventure Aquarium.
The gift-shop postcards say “Camden,” but the mugs and snow globes are branded with an aquarium logo that makes no mention of the distressed city that politicians say the aquarium is supposed to promote.
Visitors aren’t here for Camden. They’re here for the fish. You can gaze at sharks straight on or look at them upside down through a marvelous underwater tunnel. You can pet them and, believe it or not, even swim with them for $165.
“He’s having the time of his life!” beamed one man, visiting with his grandson. “What they did here is absolutely fantastic. He wants to work here!”
Large hippos press their noses against the glass and seals clap their fins while visitors feed birds with $1 cups of insects.
As for human food, visitors have no incentive to leave the premises. If there isn’t a fish tank around that corner, then there’s an aquarium vendor wearing a Hawaiian lei, listening to Bob Marley’s “One Love,” and selling Jamaican meat patties. It’s all part of the adventure.
Across the street, the manager of the upscale Victor Pub, which recovery money supported, says he gets few, if any, aquarium visitors.
The subsidized aquarium hasn’t created many jobs, either.
In Steiner’s presentation to the Camden Recovery Board in July 2003, president Barry Rosenberg promised job training for city residents. The board then unanimously approved the project.
Rosenberg said such training existed at first. But Steiner sold the aquarium operations to another company, and now only 23 percent of its employees – 28 percent during the summer – live in Camden. Before the recovery, the percentage of Camden residents employed there was 43 percent.
Even George Norcross III, chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper University Hospital and a political player, says the investment in the aquarium was misguided.
“When everything around you lacks security and stability,” Norcross said, “investing tens of millions in a fish tank on the waterfront does not make any sense to me whatsoever.”
The aquarium opened in 1992 as part of the state’s first attempt to save Camden through its waterfront. A plan for a new Campbell Soup waterfront headquarters was fading, so politicians employed the same philosophy they would use 10 years later – attractions would make people and businesses return to Camden, leading to jobs and prosperity. A marina and an office building opened at the same time.
The focus on the aquarium and waterfront met the same community skepticism as its expansion 10 years later. “We got two and three families living in one house and beautiful fishes in tanks by themselves,” activist Luis Galindez told The Inquirer at the time. “We could really have used that money.”
Then, as now, the aquarium and waterfront construction failed to meet expectations. It didn’t replace the jobs lost at the shuttered Campbell Soup plant, and after one year, attendance lagged. The state was subsidizing the operation with millions of dollars in debt payments and operating revenues.
In 2000, Steiner began making political donations and offering plans for the waterfront. Its first donation was to Republicans in 2001, when Republican Gov. Donald DiFrancesco considered a Camden recovery law. Its executives then donated to the Camden County Democrats, who sponsored the final law.
“They were people who we thought would be beneficial, and we supported them,” Rosenberg said. “There was no pay-to-play concept here at all.”
Rosenberg said the state approached Steiner about expanding the aquarium because of the firm’s unique expertise with such facilities, and since then the firm has worked with both parties.
Under Gov. Jim McGreevey, operations of the aquarium were deeded to Steiner, and in 2005 it opened its $57 million expansion – with $43 million in public funding. Two years later, Steiner sold the aquarium to Georgia-based Herschend Family Entertainment, but it is still responsible for development of the surrounding acres.
The stated point of the aquarium has always been to “anchor” a “critical mass” of activity to draw private, nonsubsidized development.
Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey Nash admits that the subsidized aquarium and baseball stadium “on their face don’t help the city directly.” But they are catalysts to make people feel comfortable visiting – and even living in – Camden again.
He cites the Victor, a luxury apartment building, restored without recovery money, yet considered proof of the waterfront’s potential.
“Stand on the Camden waterfront as it existed in 1950,” Nash said. “And open your eyes in that area now.”
Sure, the waterfront looks better, say longtime residents. But how does that help the city?
Greg Charbeneau, the aquarium’s executive director, says the facility now pays sales tax to New Jersey, and the state no longer subsidizes it with $3 million a year. The aquarium doesn’t, however, pay city taxes. It makes an annual Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT), which Steiner told the Camden Economic Recovery Board would be $1.5 million. Instead, it is about a quarter of that.
“That was the number I always anticipated we’d pay,” Rosenberg said. “When I threw out the number, it was maybe based on a certain number of people [visiting].”
As part of the 25-year PILOT deal, the city gets 50 cents per paid ticket, and for 2008 received $329,663.50.
Adventure Aquarium wouldn’t release its figures, but based on the PILOT, paid attendance last year was 659,327 people. In fiscal year 2004, when it was bailed out, attendance was 600,000, according to the former operator’s records.
That’s about $500 in recovery money for each new visitor to Camden.
“It’s a nice thing, but at the end of the day it doesn’t change anybody’s life, and that’s how we measure whether the recovery legislation was a success,” said Roy Jones, a community activist.
PILOTs are common in Camden for its largest institutions and companies, and intensely debated because the discounted taxes go only to municipal governments. Schools and counties get nothing.
Most of Camden is now tax-exempt; its rate is the third-highest in New Jersey.
If the aquarium was assessed taxes at the regular rate, it would be paying more than six times as much, about $2.1 million, and $409,500 would go to the schools.
Melvin “Randy” Primas, the city’s first chief operating officer, explained that the privatization happened because New Jersey wanted out of its investment.
“The aquarium was bleeding money and had to require financial assistance from the state,” Primas said. “And they looked at the money and looked at how much money it would cost. You’ve got to keep feeding the fish.”
Other institutional investments had better results, making parts of the downtown look more vibrant – with more buildings and improved streetscaping.
“Nobody could argue that they’re bad things, but I think they’re really below what people were thinking the money was going to go for from the community perspective,” said Peter O’Connor, of the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill.
O’Connor, whose lawsuits helped to create the state’s affordable-housing laws, believes the institutions could have found money elsewhere, and a mini-city of mixed-income housing with stores and schools could have been built on the water.
The law’s direction was set, though, before the community could even lobby the Economic Recovery Board.
One of the cosponsors, former State Sen. Wayne Bryant, was directly connected to three institutions earmarked for $21 million: Camcare, a medical clinic run by Bryant’s brother, Lawnside Mayor Mark Bryant; Rutgers-Camden, where Bryant became an occasional, paid lecturer months after the law passed; and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where Bryant had a job that would later result in a prison sentence. He was convicted of peddling his influence for the school while doing little work.
The impact of this money is mixed. At Rutgers-Camden law school, the $11 million for an expansion project helped to increase the hours of free legal work students provide city residents from about 30,000 to 40,000 hours a year.
The expansion’s resulting increase in student enrollment also sets the stage, the school said, for a planned dormitory in the city.
But the school’s expansion led to only one new job for a Camden resident, a custodial position.
Down the road, at a recovery-funded Rutgers business incubator in a new recovery-funded state office building, most companies do not stay in the city after graduation. Only one of the 30 companies is a major city employer; only one is owned by a Camden resident.
And at Campbell’s Field, $1.2 million was lent for improvements like a new video board and upgraded plumbing. “You’re using Camden as a conduit to fund your institutions, [but] the public impression was Camden was getting all these dollars,” said Kelly Francis, president of the Camden County NAACP and a fiscal watchdog. “The problem is it doesn’t trickle down.”
But amid these disappointments, at Camden County College there’s far more than a trickle effect.
The school used its $3.5 million toward a building with classrooms, a garage, a bookstore, and a computer lab, all of which serve students and the community. And the number of city residents attending the college has increased 50 percent, to nearly 2,000.
“The investment in the physical development, whether it be the law school at Rutgers, or us, or Cooper, is a means to the end,” said Louis Bezich, Camden County College vice president. “And the end is what it’s all about.”
Thousands more people are coming to Camden now, meaning more businesses may crop up to serve them and create jobs for residents.
The most palpable result of this approach can be found at Camden’s hospitals. Although Virtua canceled a plan to use $1 million for the city’s first inpatient drug-treatment facility, as promised in the law, both Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center and Cooper University Hospital undertook major construction projects with recovery money.
In a city where nearly one in two residents visits an emergency room each year for anything from routine care to trauma, both hospitals expanded their emergency rooms. Lourdes built a new nursing school with its $4.5 million, and Cooper’s $12.35 million check helped to fund a $220 million state-of-the-art patient pavilion. Cooper also received $3 million for a neonatal unit.
“The health care now is better in Camden than it has been in decades,” said Norcross, chairman of the Cooper board of trustees, whose allies sponsored the law.
Focusing solely on the waterfront “was a misguided strategy,” Norcross said, but by supporting institutions – “pockets of excellence” – Camden can be saved.
“Has there been enough emphasis on public safety and improvements in the neighborhood? The answer is no, and I think that’s where it’s got to move to.”
According to Norcross, the eds and meds and Campbell Soup are now creating safe pockets that will spread to other parts of the city.
“When you’re walking around Campbell Soup, Cooper’s, Rutgers, there is no doubt you are as safe as in Cherry Hill, N.J.,” he said.
Campbell Soup is building a $90 million world headquarters and office park with $2.3 million in infrastructure aid from the recovery fund. The construction will change the face of the city at a main entry point, Admiral Wilson Boulevard, in the Gateway neighborhood.
“Improving the front door of the city is much the same as improving the appearance of your home,” said Anthony Sanzio, company spokesman. “In a sense, the revitalized Gateway district symbolizes a revitalized Camden.”
The revitalization fund made Cooper’s expansion possible, Norcross said. Otherwise, “Cooper Hospital would have undoubtedly expanded much faster in the suburbs.”
For the first time, Cooper pays a $247,000 “service charge” to the city. Such charges were mandated for some tax-free recipients of recovery funds, and although the money doesn’t go to schools, it funds city services. Cooper is spending $600 million on expansion. The only city redevelopment plan currently being pursued is connected to Cooper, and most of the recovery money devoted to buying vacant city buildings for redevelopment is for the neighborhoods next to the hospital. There are 265 properties to be bought and held for developers.
Cooper is luring its staff to live near the hospital in new housing, including 94 mostly market-rate units funded with $3.6 million in recovery dollars. And thanks to Corzine’s executive order last summer, Cooper is opening a four-year medical school in conjunction with Rowan University. That project is eligible for a $9 million recovery check.
Norcross said he considered taking a new Cooper Cancer Institute to the suburbs, but saw “the success that was taking place, and the momentum.”
Such momentum, proponents say, paves the way for unrelated projects on the horizon – the demolition of Riverfront State Prison, and the possible extension of Camden’s rail line to Gloucester County.
Meanwhile, almost nothing is happening on the recovery’s top goal, job growth, and not much was happening before the recession, either.
The only Camden sector growing jobs is health care, according to state labor statistics.
That’s because many of the recovery-funded institutions aren’t hiring Camden residents. Since the takeover, city jobs increased by about 1,000, but the percentage of Camden residents who held jobs in the city decreased, from 23 percent to 18 percent. Some argue that once residents get good jobs, they move to middle-class towns like Pennsauken and Winslow. But the city has been bleeding jobs for decades.
At Campbell Soup, only 3 percent of the employees are Camden residents – compared with 1989, before the plant closed, when they held a third of the 940 factory jobs.
Officials from the Camden Higher Education and Healthcare Task Force cite a 31 percent increase in residents working for the eds and meds – 400 new people making an average of $25,0000 – but it’s unclear what those jobs are and whether they are full time with health coverage.
Less than 1.5 percent of the recovery dollars were spent on workforce development and job training.
In the one notable success, Respond, a longtime city nonprofit, used $1 million to build a training center for culinary arts, carpentry, auto repair, landscaping, and HVAC installation. There’s a child-care center on site, and a class for teens from a juvenile-detention facility.
“Anyone . . . would agree that that was insufficient for the city of Camden,” said Edward Gorman, president of American Community Partnership, which received $100,000 for a training facility yet to open. If his group had received $1 million, Gorman said, he would have trained 200 Camden residents in construction, 400 in culinary arts, and 500 as nurse’s assistants.
Lack of jobs means fewer taxpayers. And by that measure, Camden has actually gone backward.
During the takeover, the city became twice as dependent on state aid – to the tune of $110 million annually, plus $308 million more for the schools. This contradicts a core mission of the law, to get Camden off the state dole.
As a self-sustaining entity, Camden barely exists.
Contact staff writer Matt Katz
at 856-779-3919 or email@example.com.
Raw sewage seeped into Jackeline and Eduardo Gonzalez’s basement, through its bathroom, hallway, and bedroom.
The fumes forced the family to eat outside and sent 1-year-old Eduardo Jr. to the emergency room three times with respiratory problems. The toxic flow burned holes in walls and ruined clothes and a sofa. The mold ended Grandma’s visits from Puerto Rico.
The sewage comes from a collapsed pipe at the end of their block, on Cherry Street in Camden. How does the city respond? For three hours, three days a week, a bored employee uses a noisy machine to transfer waste from the busted sewer into one that works.
This jury-rigged solution has been in place for more than a year.
Camden is so broke, so unable to perform the basic functions of government, that the obvious solution – repairing the century-old brick sewer system – is almost impossible to achieve, fiscally and politically.
Life in Camden wasn’t supposed to be like this. Seven years ago, New Jersey rolled out a revitalization plan that brought with it the biggest municipal takeover in American history.
After years of being subsidized by state taxpayers, corrupt and crumbling Camden would be taken over, repaired, and put on a path to self-reliance.
Then-Gov. Jim McGreevey gave Camden $175 million in bonds and loans, plus a one-time $7.5 million appropriation from the state budget, in exchange for an appointed chief operating officer to run the government and for gubernatorial control over the school board. His plan would create jobs, improve the quality of life, decrease crime, demolish all unsafe vacant buildings, lure new businesses, and, yes, mend sewers.
Five years later, when the recovery effort was first scheduled to be completed, the Gonzalezes bought a small rowhouse with money earned cleaning offices in Cherry Hill. But their odorous problem has now forced them to put that house on the market for the price they paid, $69,900.
So far, no buyer is interested.
Unknown to the Gonzalezes – or their neighbors who have cleaned black muck from their own basements – Cherry Street’s sewer was labeled an “emergency” with a purple dot in an April 2003 capital-improvement plan.
The state spent $145,570 on that plan as part of the recovery, but nothing to solve the problem.
Cherry Street tells the story of Camden today. A 13-month Inquirer investigation has found that with notable exceptions, the state takeover has failed.
Officials say an impoverished place with such intractable problems cannot be turned around with just $175 million and in just seven years; the renewal has only begun.
“Is Camden better off than it was before this process began?” asked Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., a law sponsor and city resident. “I think without question.”
The takeover’s first chief operating officer, Melvin R. “Randy” Primas Jr., said he believes that the money was a “downpayment,” and that no one can expect Camden to fully come back “until the state of New Jersey deals with the issues of race, class, and poverty.”
“You can’t put all the poor in Newark, Camden, and Atlantic City and expect those places to survive.”
Besides, the recovery has benefited the city in visible ways: a larger aquarium, a better-looking downtown, and a growing presence of higher-education institutions. Residential projects in several neighborhoods were undertaken, including a new senior-citizen complex and the redevelopment of a notorious drug alley. Some money was directed to social services, like community centers, a soup kitchen, and buildings for job training.
And with funding for two expanded emergency rooms at two expanded hospitals, Camden has better access to health care than ever before.
In paying for a piece of all these projects, the architects of the takeover say, they “leveraged” more private and public dollars, even in a tough economy, for Camden’s revitalization.
But measured by the standards of the recovery law itself – rather than an outsider’s ideal of urban transformation – politicians and officials still failed to meet their goals.
These are the investigation’s findings.
Camden residents are just as poor today and just as likely to be murdered. They are just as unemployed and lacking in the skills to succeed at work. Their children’s reading and math skills are just as abysmal. And the city is twice as reliant on state taxpayers as before.
The law replaced the political power of Camden’s most significant advocates – its 70,390 residents – with a murky bureaucracy unable to govern. State legislators have said some control could return to city leaders by the end of the year, but gave no specifics.
“Countries we invade have more rights than we do,” former school board member Dwaine Williams said.
Seventeen stipulations of the law were ignored. The state would assist Camden, the law said, in “maintaining not less than that number of police officers employed” on the day of passage, yet the force has been cut by 60 officers to about 350. New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said that the requirement was a “legislative finding, not a statutory mandate,” and that 75 officers would be hired in the next few months.
The law also said New Jersey would “provide the necessary level of funding to allow for the demolition of unsafe structures,” but more than 1,500 such buildings remain, as drug dens, fire hazards, and eyesores. Gov. Corzine said that razing some vacant buildings would imperil the rowhouses connected to them, and that the vacants posing the greatest crime risk had been demolished.
Less than 5 percent of the $175 million recovery package was spent on the things residents care about most: crime, city schools, job training, and municipal services.
Funding priorities were set by a state board that has never had the legal number of representatives. The board comprises 11 voting members. One other seat was never filled, while two more members showed up for one meeting each and never returned.
Originally intended to be spent in three years, the $175 million has about $16 million – including loans that have been repaid – left over. But applications from residents and community groups are no longer accepted; the board capped funding for “public-purpose projects,” like community centers, at $7.5 million.
Nearly $100 million of the $170 million spent so far went to construction projects for large institutions, like a law school and an aquarium. And much of the construction work was handled by contractors and labor unions that contribute to the authors of the takeover law, the Camden County Democrats.
The largesse did not, as promised, trickle down to poor people, or many neighborhood blocks. Officials now say $1 billion would be needed to do just two things the law promised – level dangerous abandoned buildings and modernize the sewer system. “To do everything we wanted to do in the city we would need billions and billions of dollars,” said Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D., Camden), a law sponsor.
Like the Gonzalezes, Maritza and Ezequiel Rivera have damage to their home caused, they say, by governmental negligence.
The Woodland Avenue family has asked “100 times” over five years to have the long-abandoned house next door knocked down. Frequented by drug users, the “‘bando” is caving into their home, flooding the basement, and damaging the ceiling. According to a letter from the city, the house next door has 13 code violations.
“We’d like to fix our house real nice,” Maritza said, “but we can’t.”
Msgr. Michael Doyle, a longtime advocate for Camden’s poor, supported the recovery at first because he thought the state “would take responsibility for Camden,” and its progress would be “on somebody’s report card.”
“It didn’t work out that way,” he said. “It’s very sad.”
Not one leader of the recovery takes responsibility for its failings.
From Corzine to Caren Franzini, who oversees the Economic Recovery Board; to Roberts, the Democrat who sponsored the law; to Primas, the first Camden chief operating officer; to George Norcross III, an influential political player: All say any delay in Camden’s recovery is the fault not of the political establishment, but of the recession and the state’s unprecedented fiscal constraints.
The $175 million was never intended to fix all of Camden’s problems, they say. In fact, although improvement has come slower than anticipated, they say, the state takeover of Camden has succeeded.
“I know more about this damn thing than almost anybody,” Corzine said in an interview two days after he lost his race for reelection.
As to 17 provisions of the law that haven’t been followed, he said: “I can tell you that the themes that the thing was built on – jobs, public safety – we’ve been dedicated and focused” on.
Corzine said the recovery-funded expansion of Cooper University Hospital and Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center had meant jobs for Camden residents.
Most of all, he said, his four years as the de facto leader of Camden have laid the “foundation” for improvement in public safety.
Statistics show no improvement in crime control during the takeover. But this year, since a Corzine-led reorganization of the Police Department, arrests for drug-dealing and gun possession have gone up, and homicides are falling.
Yes, the number of officers has decreased, contrary to a stipulation in the law. But those working the streets, instead of sitting at their desks, have increased, Corzine said.
He described Camden as a “50-year problem” that won’t be fixed in seven: “It’s not like we’re sitting around with huge pools of money to do anything we want.”
Corzine cited smaller successes, like new community gardens and the hiring of a new schools superintendent. And he said the city’s fiscal house is finally in order, even if the current year’s budget has yet to be introduced.
“It’s not perfect,” he said. “I’m not trying to say it is.”
Problems like Camden’s are “why I got into government.”
“It is a hard thing to go and hear legitimate frustrations of the public when you know you’re working on something and you know you’re not going to be able to satisfy all their needs in four more years.”
Mayor Gwendolyn Faison was a 75-year-old councilwoman when she came to office in 2000 to replace Milton Milan, the third Camden mayor in two decades to be convicted of corruption. When the recovery plan came up for a legislative vote in 2002, Faison didn’t want her “constitutional rights” taken away, she said, but with an annual city budget of $118 million, she couldn’t turn down the $175 million in state money, either.
At the signing of the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act, she literally sang, “Good things are happening!”
Camden ministers in attendance shouted amens. State Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, who’d crafted the law (and was later imprisoned for unrelated corruption), called it “liberation.”
The people in the room had long memories of Camden, beginning with its heyday in the early 20th century, when RCA Victor produced phonographs for the world and trucks of tomatoes rolled down the streets to the Campbell Soup plant. Ferries linked commerce to Philadelphia, and a population of more than 120,000 in 1950 – 70 percent greater than today’s – filled what are now huge tracts of vacant land.
Then manufacturing left. Riots, white flight, drugs, and crime followed. By the end of the century, the tax base was nearly obliterated, and the city’s criminal culture had infiltrated City Hall.
Weary of dishonest leadership and hoping to wean Camden from the state dole, legislators gave a governor-appointed chief operating officer the mayor’s powers, from hiring to redevelopment to finances, plus veto power over City Council and city agencies. The laws the COO introduces pass if Council takes no action.
“When you looked at a city like Camden that had distinguished itself by sending mayors to prison, you had to achieve political stability, governmental stability,” said Roberts, the Assembly speaker and coauthor of the law. “People had to know there wasn’t going to be a complete lack of responsiveness from a changing cast of characters in City Hall.”
The South Jersey Democrats enthusiastically backed the extraordinary recovery law. But their ardor was quite the switch from their views in 2000, when they didn’t want it to happen.
A Republican, Christie Whitman, was governor, and the Camden County Democrats said her proposal of a takeover would “trample over the rights of our citizenry to elected representation. . . . It collapses the constitutional protections of Camden citizens . . . reducing them to bystanders of their own government.”
Writing a joint editorial in a local newspaper, the opponents, three Democratic legislators from Camden County, were “astonished by the blind faith” being put in Trenton even after it “has left too long a trail of poor performance and broken promises in Camden.”
“Dictatorship,” they sneered.
The legislators were successful. When Whitman joined the Bush administration, her proposal for Camden – economic development and political takeover – died.
A year later, interim Republican Gov. Donald DiFrancesco had a law on his desk with more than $180 million for Camden, and Norcross, Camden County’s unelected Democratic leader, had offered input.
“He had his own ideas about Camden, too, positive ideas,” DiFrancesco said.
But when McGreevey won the election in November 2001, the governor-elect instructed fellow Democrats to avoid voting on the proposal until he could assume office. This delay gave him and the party the power to appoint the city’s COO – who would hold more power than any New Jersey mayor. Ten of the 14 members of the Camden Economic Recovery Board, which disburses the cash, would also be his appointees.
Six months into his term, in July 2002, a law with bipartisan support and much of the same powers as the alleged “dictatorship” was signed. Three of the sponsors? Sen. Bryant, Assemblyman Roberts, and Assemblywoman Cruz-Perez, the three who had penned that editorial less than two years before.
At Corinne’s Place on Haddon Avenue, a charming soul-food spot with a wide reputation, proprietor Corinne Bradley-Powers said she had requested recovery money to expand into the long-vacant building next door. The former social worker wanted to create a cooking school for teens, but said she had never heard back from state officials.
Bradley-Powers already hires tough kids, turning their lives around, but she wanted to do more. “You’ve been fighting and fighting and there’s no help nowhere around,” she said.
The Economic Recovery Board, made up entirely of elected Democrats and Democratic appointees, favored projects that, unlike Bradley-Powers’, had other funding sources. It wanted to leverage money, not be the sole provider.
The board gave a quarter of the money to two intermediary groups with Democratic ties and redevelopment experience – the governmental Camden Redevelopment Agency and the nonprofit Cooper’s Ferry Development Association.
Those groups in turn distributed money to contractors, almost all of whom were Democratic donors.
Leaders of both groups deny that pay-to-play had any role in distributing money, even if both entities have ties to leading Democrats.
“Cooper’s Ferry Development Association has always administered the public funding it has received through an open, transparent bidding process,” the organization said in a statement. “That process is governed by what is in the best interests of the people of Camden, not any political party or interest. Any statement or inference to the contrary would be false and misleading.”
At the Camden Redevelopment Agency, which was led by COO Primas, Michaels Development of Marlton benefited from recovery money to support two affordable-housing projects.
Between 2000 and 2008, the Michaels company, chief executive officer Michael Levitt, and his wife donated more than $220,000 to Camden County and statewide Democratic funds.
Levitt also had a business partnership with Primas in the 1990s to build housing in Camden. But according to Primas and a statement from Michaels, that partnership dissolved before their business began.
The recovery paid for $5 million in infrastructure improvements so Michaels and two other builders, all Democratic donors, could build affordable housing in the Centerville section of the city.
Neighbors carp that new sewers and roads are being constructed there even as sewers elsewhere crumble and nearby Charles Street remains a dirt road. Besides, the recovery law stipulated that market-rate housing be built to expand Camden’s tax base, instead of low-income housing that concentrates more poverty in the city.
Primas said pay-to-play had nothing to do with the Michaels project. He said that market-rate developers had wanted to come into some parts of town, but that the community had rejected the plans, fearing property would be seized under eminent domain.
So to improve some housing in the city, Primas supported the project. “You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt,” he said.
Primas also noted that Michaels is one of the few companies that specializes in affordable housing.
Michaels said in a statement that its donations are not tied to its success in getting money, noting that it had lost bids with the city in the past. It received the recovery money for a project it was already working on with the Housing Authority after winning a competitive bid, the company said.
“We absolutely and totally reject any suggestion that Michaels Development Co. has won jobs for any reason other than presenting the best plan in a competitive bidding process and being the most qualified developer to achieve that plan,” the company said. “We believe in being good corporate citizens. This includes participating in the political process.”
As soon as McGreevey put down his bill-signing pen, donors were given business. Eight of the 12 firms that handled the initial $175 million bond sale were Democratic contributors.
Even the $45,000 job to print the bonds went to a donor. The company’s executive lived in Swarthmore, yet he gave $6,400 to the Camden County Democratic Committee.
Contributions don’t influence policy, officials insist, because there’s a fair, open, advertised bidding process for most contracts. Yet for some of the biggest donors – law firms, engineers, and other professionals – the Camden Redevelopment Agency approves annual lists of eligible professionals so contracts can be awarded faster. Cost is not a factor for inclusion on these lists, and firms can win contracts based only on experience.
Skeptics believe these arrangements were the point of the takeover.
“What you have is a political machine that has its own agenda. They seek to survive, they seek to expand, they seek the status quo,” said Camden school board member Jose Delgado, who could not run for reelection after the takeover because an appointee took his seat.
George Norcross does not use the word machine.
He said he had built an unprecedented bipartisan coalition of people who care about the region. He is proud he has helped long-neglected South Jersey win state resources back from the more populous, powerful north.
“I think it’s fair to say we have a prominent seat at the table, and we couldn’t say that before.”
In a city so dependent on state and federal money, these political ties mean survival, politicians believe. Camden County Democrats even allied with some Republicans to sponsor the recovery law, though not its 2007 renewal.
Norcross said that donors were local residents and businesspeople of all political stripes who agreed with the Democrats’ approach, and that most did not do business with government. Considering the hundreds of school boards, municipal councils, and other government bodies in New Jersey, that’s difficult to verify.
A Cherry Hill resident and the son of a prominent South Jersey labor leader, Norcross, 53, hasn’t been chairman of the party in nearly two decades. But insiders say he still calls the shots, and is one of the most powerful unelected people in New Jersey politics.
His businesses – both at Commerce Bank, where he led the insurance division, and at Conner Strong, the Marlton insurance firm he runs – have collected millions of dollars in governmental work.
Such contracts represent less than 5 percent of his business, Norcross said. And Conner Strong’s ethics policy forbids executives and their relatives to contribute to state or local candidates.
Norcross’ other role, as chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper University Hospital, where he has presided over a recent financial rebound and physical growth, has put a public face on his backroom persona.
The law, sponsored in part by Norcross’ political allies, earmarked $12.35 million – the second-biggest recovery check – to Cooper’s $220 million expansion. An additional $3 million was provided for its neonatal unit, and the hospital is in line to receive $9 million toward the construction of a new medical school run with Rowan University. Millions more bought property next to Cooper for future hospital-related growth.
Of the dozens of recovery-funded projects, the work at Cooper has had the most visible impact on the city, improving residents’ access to health care, and creating more immediate jobs for residents than any other element of the recovery.
Yet the hospital has also angered residents who fear seizure of their homes under eminent domain. They say their city has become “Cooper, New Jersey.”
Lawsuits are pending against a Cooper-driven redevelopment plan in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It’s all about a big takeover,” nearby resident Benigno Rodriguez said. “The reason why they want to take over that area is so it can benefit the waterfront, Cooper Hospital, and the higher tax bracket.”
Because of the state’s recovery effort and one-party control in Camden, residents say, they’re excluded from the process. The circle of businesspeople and political operatives who maintain the Democratic organization is tight-knit, and includes two Norcross brothers, both of whom benefited professionally from the recovery.
Donald Norcross, who heads the South Jersey AFL-CIO, was appointed by the Camden County Democrats this fall – after the party primary – to run for a suddenly vacant Assembly seat. He will replace Roberts, a former George Norcross business partner.
Donald Norcross is the business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 351, which wrote checks totaling more than $125,000 to Camden County Democrats and their candidates between 2001 and 2008.
“I’ve been very supportive of candidates and elected officials who work toward issues of concern to working families,” he said.
The law also mandated that unions have a seat on the recovery board, to which McGreevey appointed the president of Donald Norcross’ union, William Hosey.
Neither the state nor the unions keep track, but the law created an estimated thousands of construction jobs. Many went to Camden residents, Donald Norcross said.
Residents, however, say the recovery has failed entirely on the job front.
“There were no new millionaires in my neighborhood,” said Rodney Sadler, a citizen member of the recovery board. “There were not a lot of people who stepped up the ladder – and that was the intention. . . . It had zip effect on the local population.”
Few recovery vendors are from Camden. Another Norcross brother, Philip, is a bond lawyer who signed two contracts for $200,000 so his law firm, political donor Parker McCay in Marlton, could handle real estate services – condemnation, eminent domain – for an infrastructure project at Campbell Soup headquarters.
The Camden Redevelopment Agency awarded Norcross the no-bid contract after his firm was chosen from an annual preapproved list.
A lawyer who has never donated, Vera McCoy, was on that list, too, but never got a call for work. “I wonder if I knew more of the right people I would have gotten a contract,” she said.
The two men chosen for the recovery’s biggest job, chief operating officer, knew George Norcross.
The first, Primas, a former Camden mayor and Democratic player, was an executive at Commerce Bank with Norcross before McGreevey chose him. He left office after a dispute with the state over his level of control.
The wife of the second COO, former Superior Court Judge Theodore Z. Davis, serves on the board of Cooper University Hospital with Norcross. Joan Davis is vice chairman; Norcross is chairman.
Joan Davis said her husband’s selection had nothing to do with political connections.
“I don’t do anything political,” she said. “Never have, and I’m too old to do it now.”
Theodore Davis resigned in August after suggesting that Camden remain under state control until about 2030. Since then, Corzine, who appointed him, has distanced himself from the judge, saying Davis was not his first choice.
State Treasury official Albertha Hyche is interim COO. It is unclear how Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie will handle the takeover.
The takeover’s dysfunction lies in its lack of transparency and connection to people. There are almost no issues a city resident can raise in Council that the elected governing body can do anything about.
City government received no funds, and although the state spent $220,000 on a new operational plan for City Hall, none of the recommendations was implemented.
Under the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act, Camden cannot even raise taxes, so when funding is insufficient, workers must go. Last year, the COO dismissed 23 workers against Council’s formal objections and in alleged violation of union agreements.
At the school district, which received no recovery aid, the governor has used veto authority over the school board. Together the governor and mayor appoint six of nine members, and the appointees’ poor attendance has frequently delayed business of the board.
And at the Economic Recovery Board, the Camden legislators who have sat on the board have shown up to fewer than 20 percent of the meetings.
“It’s a wonder why people don’t riot. They ought to riot,” said Assemblyman Joseph Malone, a Burlington County Republican.
But riot against whom? No single person has a handle on everything happening in the city.
Officials have made misleading or bogus statements – from the number of houses demolished to the specific projects funded. The COOs have failed to file more than a dozen mandated progress reports to the state; Corzine said he thought they had been filed.
Even with state control, the city has yet to approve a budget this fiscal year. Davis had overruled Council and tried to close the deficit by raising water and sewer rates. An elected official, he said, is a “political animal” ill-equipped to take such action.
“You can be elected [mayor] even if you just went to the first grade.”
In 2007, Corzine signed a law extending the five-year takeover to 2012, or possibly 2017. No further funding was provided. And no way to measure progress was instituted.
Residents on the Economic Recovery Board, however, have measured the progress from their own backyards. And they say they have seen nothing.
They feel like “puppets,” said member Rosa Ramirez, who lobbied for the state takeover through the civic group Camden Churches Organized for People.
“Am I there to speak my voice, make some noise, or do they put me on so they can have someone from the neighborhood?” she asked.
City business owner and board member Robert Milner admitted “some of the things they wanted to do helped the city, yes. But they did not help the people in the city.”
Funding applications are cleared in “committee” meetings that the public and reporters are forbidden to attend. Once the proposals get to the full board, in all but one case, they pass. About 98 percent of the board’s votes have been unanimous.
Caren Franzini, who oversees the recovery board as CEO of the state Economic Development Authority, said the closed-door policy is standard in New Jersey and done for efficiency, not privacy.
The unique version of democracy practiced by Camden’s leaders downtown has had little effect on the Gonzalezes and their Cherry Street sewer.
The block is still surrounded by empty lots of urban wildlife (possums, pit bulls), the skeleton of an old water tower, and a bustling scrap-metal facility.
Across the street, all the homes are long gone, from fires or demolition. Down the block, an abandoned house lives out its days as a reputed house of prostitution. And all around are South Jersey’s most environmentally precarious places, including the county sewage-treatment plant, a trash incinerator, and the South Jersey Port.
In other words, everything looks pretty much the same.
The United Water Camden employee responsible for pumping Cherry Street is a former school board member and something of a local revolutionary. He reads to keep himself occupied in his truck, and recently finished a book on New Jersey corruption.
“They told people that Camden was going to be reborn, and all the ills such as the bad water, the problems with the sewers, were going to be taken care of,” said Brother Zawdie Abdul-Malik, 68, his gray dreads tucked under a skullcap.
“But they didn’t tell them that it would only be taking care of the people at Campbell’s, Cooper’s, Rutgers, and the aquarium. They don’t care about us.”
Neighbors George Arroyo, 56, and Lance Merrill, 34, work to clean and clear-cut vacant city-owned property on Cherry Street so ticks don’t fester and kids can walk to school on a sidewalk.
“Somebody’s got the money. I don’t know who,” Arroyo said of the $175 million bailout.
He heard an explanation he believes: The money was sent to Camden in an armored truck from Trenton, but the truck got carjacked.
“It got into the truck, but where is it?” he asked, lifting his arms, then shaking his head. “I don’t see it.”
1828: A group of settlements clustered around ferries forms the new city of Camden.
1869: Campbell Soup Co. is founded.
1892: The city’s most famous resident, Walt Whitman, dies.
1901: The Victor Talking Machine Co., later RCA, begins making Victrolas and records.
1926: The Ben Franklin Bridge, then called the Delaware River Bridge, opens.
1952: Ferry service to Philadelphia ends after 264 years.
1963: The Camden Beer brewery closes.
1967: New York Shipbuilding Corp., a longtime source
of jobs, closes
after 68 years.
1971: Riots follow the police beating
of a Puerto Rican motorist, destroying parts of the city.
Angelo Errichetti is convicted in the Abscam federal corruption scandal. He would serve 32 months in prison.
1986: General Electric buys RCA, now defense contractor L-3 Communications.
1987: A 32-acre county wastewater treatment plant opens on the
1990: Campbell Soup closes its factory, eliminating 950 jobs; corporate headquarters remain.
1991: A $108 million trash-to-steam incinerator opens.
1992: The New Jersey State Aquarium opens. The Woolworth store in East Camden,
a vital retail store in the city, closes.
1994: Ferry service between Camden and Philadelphia resumes.
1995: A concert arena, now called the Susquehanna Bank Center, opens.
1999: Former Mayor Arnold Webster pleads guilty to paying himself with school money while mayor. He would serve six months
of house arrest.
2000: Mayor Milton Milan is convicted of accepting drug and mob money and sentenced to seven years in prison.
2002: The state takeover and $175 million recovery plan is approved by the Legislature.
2004: The Victor luxury apartments open in the old RCA building.
2005: An expanded, recovery-funded, privatized aquarium opens.
2006: Camden chief operating officer Melvin “Randy” Primas resigns
after a dispute with state officials.
2007: The Legislature renews the Camden takeover until
at least 2012.
2009: Camden chief operating officer Theodore Z. Davis resigns without explanation. The first new mayor in nine years, Dana Redd,
a state senator and city councilwoman, is elected.
Videos: Reporter Matt Katz on this series, plus a street-level view of the city by Camden Film Project youths.http://go.philly.com/takeover
Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 856-779-3919 or firstname.lastname@example.org.