The Latest Hot Spot Is … Camden?

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Camden, N.J., is showing signs of a rejuvenated skyline as investors take the bridge over for a look at the city's potential.

Let’s talk about Camden. Poverty? Check. Urban blight? Check. Consistently ranked among America’s most dangerous cities? Check.

High hopes for an economic revival? Check.


Thanks to the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 — a state law designed to lure businesses to New Jersey or keep them in the Garden State — numerous projects in Camden have received approval for tax credits totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. It is hoped that the law, which contains extra incentives for development in Camden, will create thousands of jobs in the city and spearhead an economic renaissance of sorts that will invigorate the town’s blighted landscape.

“The interest generated by major players like Cooper Health Systems, Lockheed Martin and the Sixers gave everyone a chance to see that the utilization of the tax incentives is worthwhile,” says Anne Klein, executive managing director of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank’s Global Corporate Services group and a veteran of approximately three decades in southern New Jersey’s real estate market.

“Then, when Subaru announced plans to move its offices to Camden, that was a game-changer,” she adds.

Even as other facilities left Camden, Cooper University Hospital remained, although the health system that operates the hospital moved non-clinical functions to Mount Laurel and Cherry Hill.

However, those jobs will be returning to Camden along with hundreds of others. The state will provide $40 million in tax credits.

The Philadelphia 76ers are constructing a practice facility and offices in Camden. According to team officials, 250 jobs will be created. New Jersey is offering $82 million in tax credits.

Subaru of America, the U.S. arm of the Japanese automaker, is moving its training facility and offices from Cherry Hill to Camden, bringing 500 existing jobs and creating 100 new positions. Subaru will be based in the Gateway complex being developed by longtime Camden fixture Campbell Soup Company. The state will provide $118 million in tax credits.

Other corporate additions to Camden include Holtec International, a nuclear power plant component manufacturer (as many as 3,000 jobs, $260 million in tax credits); defense contractor Lockheed Martin (250 jobs, $107 million in tax incentives); Diogenix, which is developing a molecular multiple sclerosis test (100 jobs, $7.5 million in tax credits); and WebiMax, an Internet marketing agency (100 new jobs, $12.8 million in tax credits).

“There definitely are people who believe Camden can be turned around,” says Nancy Pearl, a licensed realtor at Berkshire Hathaway. “Rutgers Camden has grown. Cooper Hospital has spent a lot of money in the area, and it shows. A new supermarket has opened in a part of town that hadn’t had one in quite some time.

“There are charter schools in Camden that produce excellent students.

“All of these things are important, because people need to see success stories,” continues Pearl, a board member of the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. “The aura of negativity that has surrounded Camden for so long needs to be removed.”

Between 2008 and 2012, more than one third of Camden’s 77,000 residents lived below the poverty line. As recently as early 2014, Camden was named the most dangerous city of its size in America, based on FBI data.

But crime began a steady decline when Camden County took over the city’s police force early in 2013. Violent crime, in fact, dropped by 70 percent in the span of a year.

Clearly, safety concerns have not hindered the many businesses that are relocating in the city.

“You have the Gateway complex, the Cooper Hospital area and the waterfront, and I have no safety concerns when I’m in any of those places,” Klein says.

The Camden waterfront, to which Klein alluded, is filled with attractions that draw visitors to the area, among them the Susquehanna Bank Center, Wiggins Park and Marina, Adventure Aquarium, baseball’s Camden Riversharks — whose home games are played in state-of-the-art Campbell’s Field — Battleship New Jersey and the Camden Children’s Garden.

Furthermore, Camden offers plenty of public transportation and, perhaps most important, easy access to and unobstructed views of Philadelphia.

“These places along the river are destinations,” Pearl points out, “but what is needed are amenities that will get people to linger.”

Klein emphatically agrees. “If you’re going to build a true community, you can’t rely solely on a handful of attractions,” she says. “You need restaurants, day care, shopping, a bank. You’re attracting businesses. You’re addressing safety concerns. The amenities need to follow.”

What about housing? It is widely believed that persuading corporate entities to come to Camden is an entirely different proposition than attracting would-be homeowners — even those employed in the city — to settle there, regardless of location and affordability.

Maria Yglesias and Maria Del Mar Lopez of M&M Development share an entirely different perspective. The two launched their business back in 1997 in Newark, where they transformed abandoned properties and vacant lots into affordable family housing. Since 2010, they have been doing essentially the same thing in Camden.

“Successful neighborhoods have diversity of background, diversity of education and diversity of income,” says Yglesias. “We want people who could live anywhere else to come and live in Camden. People ultimately make cities, so we need to provide desirable housing choices so that we can attract a diverse population to Camden.

“If we can get everyone to think like that, even our competition, it will bring people to Camden. If we build high-quality, affordable housing, people will come.”

She continues: “You’re talking about a great location, 10 minutes from Philadelphia, a place where you can buy a house for a fraction of the price that you’d pay for that property anywhere else.

“I tell people to see for themselves. We have more than 30 families in homes we’ve built. Talk to our buyers. Look around. Decide for yourself. I’m convinced that the perception of Camden will continue to change.”

Twenty-five to 30 years ago, North Jersey cities located in a shadow cast by New York, such as Bayonne and Hoboken, were hardly in demand among potential homeowners. Eventually, though, those towns became popular places to live and raise a family.

“It is likely to take a huge effort to develop an infrastructure before a significant number of Philadelphians, for example, would consider moving across the river to Camden,” says Forrest Huffman, professor of real state and finance at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.

“The fact that it’s been happening on the corporate level with the help of tax incentives certainly is encouraging,” he adds, “but a great deal of work still needs to be done for it to become a legitimate option for large numbers of homebuyers.”

Matt Schuman is an area writer. This article originally appeared in the special section of "Real Estate."

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