Local officials are confident Camden is turning a corner

Camden’s incremental successes have been well-documented, whether it is the relocation of several large companies, more schools opening campuses or expanding, increased graduation rates, decreased crime rates or the unique programs being launched to encourage greater community engagement.

While it may be too early to tell whether Camden can maintain its current momentum — especially in light of some prominent CEOs’ recent issues with the workforce — virtually all invested in the city remain optimistic.

“I don’t know any other city in the country that is moving at the clip that Camden is moving,” Kris Kolluri, CEO and president of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, said recently.

Here are some aspects of life in Camden that are helping the city grow, according to business leaders.

College students

One of the most telling signs of Camden’s revival is the city’s student population, where housing demands are flooding the market.

“We have a waiting list of more than 100 to live in the dorms,” Mike Sepanic, associate chancellor for external relations at Rutgers University-Camden, said.

“We are turning people away from across New Jersey and from across the country. We’re going to need another dorm.”

The Rutgers-Camden campus has been seeing consistent growth every year, peaking at 7,500 enrolled this year. That is likely to reach 8,000 by the end of the year, according to Sepanic. Most students are still coming from the five South Jersey counties, but because of the tuition-aid program Rutgers recently launched — called “Bridging the Gap” — there has been increasing enrollment from northern and central New Jersey.

There is also a significant population from Texas and California as well as South Korea and Taiwan.

For students who aren’t living in dorms, private housing has become an option, and traditional boundaries that used to serve as barriers — including the bridge into North Camden — are being erased.

“The bridge, like all barriers, is a psychological barrier,” Sepanic said. “We can go to and from North Camden as easily as we like. But for many years, people viewed that as not part of our neighborhood. That was a fence. And that’s not true anymore.

“Our students are going into north Camden … they are becoming part of the neighborhood.”

Food scene

Rob Lucas Jr., owner of Donkey’s Place cheesesteak joint and bar, said he can easily chart the city’s growth.

In fact, he is.

“We’re getting people from out of town that more and more are coming to Camden, in the middle of the day, and it happens all the time now,” he said.

It’s not just anecdotal from New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Lucas has two maps in the building: one of the United States, the other of the world.

Donkey’s Place cheesesteak joint and bar in Camden has been keeping track of where visitors to the restaurant are coming in from.

He’s been keeping track of where visitors to the restaurant, which has been featured on the Food Network and visited by the late Anthony Bourdain, are coming in from.

There are more than a dozen states colored in, and at least 35 countries, Lucas said.

Cleaning up

Lucas said there are other signs that there is significant movement in the city.

“They’ve been tearing down a lot of the abandoned buildings,” Lucas said. “It’s been nice. There’s not as much graffiti. I haven’t been hit here. Once in three years I got hit on the side of the building — and it’s painted the next day.

“They still got a way to go. Bring down some more of the abandoned buildings, some more businesses in here, just clean it up. It has to be cleaned up. “

The county has already taken down thousands of abandoned buildings, according to county officials. At least 600 have been residential.

Working with government

During former Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure, the state earmarked significant funding for Camden and was instrumental in helping the city access state resources to transform the city.

Kolluri is not worried about the new administration under Gov. Phil Murphy changing that.

“If you look at the incentive programs that were in place until 2012, Camden got something like 0.01 percent of tax credits,” he said. “So, for the longest time, no one even heard about Camden. For the last five years, people began to hear about Camden.

“We take at face value that this governor is serious about the entire state of New Jersey. So, yes, Gov. Christie was fantastic, and we think Gov. Murphy recognizes what’s happening in the city of Camden.”

Next steps

To date, there has been a heavy focus on larger companies moving in with sprawling campuses. But the next iteration of Camden’s growth may change.

“I think it’s probably natural the next iteration of growth is going to come from companies looking for 50,000 square feet rather than 200,000 square feet,” Kolluri said. “And that’s OK.”

Future steps also include paying more attention to the natural trails and waterways that exist in Camden.

“It’s not just buildings, it’s the public realm,” Kolluri said.

There have been community bike rides and kayaking trips, and more such events are being planned.

Opportunity Zones are the next opportunity Cooper’s Ferry plans to take advantage of, since more than a half-dozen census tracts were designated zones in Camden.

“If the economy itself softens, obviously that’s a challenge for the whole country, not just Camden,” Kolluri said. “But insulating against that softness is something we are working towards to make sure these buildings that are here and the people that work here are here for the next 15 years.”

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