John Kromer, author of the recent book Fixing Broken Cities, wrote an op ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the future of Camden. He gives several suggestions to the new mayor of Camden on development projects that will help turn the city around. Each has its value and all are conventional redevelopment techniques that are taught in every urban planning, urban studies, or urban development course in higher ed in this country. I respect Mr. Kromer, who did a stint in Camden as the redevelopment director. He knows his stuff and is a seasoned professional.
But I have to say, I think he is absolutely wrong on this one.
Conventional redevelopment assumes that what a city needs is rateables - property that will produce a stream of tax revenue to the city, and a density of uses that will create activity, energy, and spending of discretionary income. This is a winning formula for most urban downtowns in the last 20 years. Commerical development surrounded by tourist bubbles and hipster bubbles yields a positive economic cash flow. Camden certainly needs a positive economic cash flow. But rateables will not save Camden. I have a different view on the future.
Camden will not prosper without jobs and education. It is that simple.
Camden can build mixed income housing in Lanning Square for Cooper Hospital, mixed use at the water front (both north and south of the bridge), and rebuild its downtown (including the new DRPA developments planned around the transit stops) and marvel at the edifices. It won't solve the city's problems.
Camden has taxable property right now. The problem is that property owners cannot afford the taxes and new buyers wont buy because they don't think there is a return on investment, let alone adequate services for taxes paid. Bringing in more people who have higher incomes will yield two things - subsidized development that won't yield a positive tax revenue stream and expectations of a higher level of service that will be costly for the city.
Camden residents need jobs and education. It's that simple. Camden residents need assistance with business start-ups and expansion, green manufacturing, light industry, and urban agriculture. If Camden gets that right, it will create a climate for investment and that's when you can do the conventional redevelopment projects. Every dollar of federal grants, foundation assistance, and city revenue should be spent on items that create jobs and support education for residents of Camden. It's very nice that the Camden Reinvestment money paid for the RU law school expansion. It is a beautiful example of conventional revitalization. It does nothing to help educate the citizens of Camden. Same goes for the aquarium, music center, baseball stadium, and Victor building. All beautiful and each a fine example of conventional redevelopment. None of these provide education to the residents or significant job opportunities.
Camden just received $25 million in Neighborhood Stabilization funding from the feds. It will help to build, rehab, and tear down housing - all of which is badly needed. The estimates are that it will create 300 jobs. Let's be clear...it will create 300 employment opportunities. Some will last a month, some will last a year. Construction is a piecemeal industry and when the electrician's job is done, the drywall guy takes over. They are not the same person and these jobs don't last that long. Will Camden residents will get 100% of these jobs?
The most important strategy our new Mayor can take on is to devote the city to creating permanent jobs and to ensuring a world class education for K-12. The mayor has just been granted extraordinary powers over the city AND the school district. I hope she will use them well. Here are my recommendations (no offense Mr. Kromer, but I hope she takes my advise and not yours).
1. build things that will produce jobs, businesses, and green industry
2. commit to a public education system that works and support that system with every financial, political, and social piece of capital that Camden has.
3. reduce city services to the essentials of fire, police and courts, sanitation, and infrastructure. Make those services extremely efficient.
4. Every other worker should be focused on jobs and education - every planner, every human resource worker, every social service worker, every IT person - should have a clear mission and singular focus.
I know these are radical, and somewhat heretical suggestions. I'm not against redevelopment and in fact have taught and sung its praises for 20 years. I'm not against social services and helping folks with housing. I'm a neighborhood advocate. But Camden is on life support and unless the supplies get moving, people will die - just as we are witnessing in Haiti. Every reporter, every viewer of that catastrophe is asking - why aren't supplies getting to the people that need them? The large organizations, the military, and UN are worried about logistics and order and not creating more problems. Meanwhile people die in the streets.
Camden is at a crossroads. We have a golden opportunity to make the city a better place for its residents. What will it be Madame Mayor?