In N.J., a town divided by waterfront renewal

Renaissance: The emerging tourism industry in Camden contrasts with the blight in this once-thriving industrial mecca.

August 09, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CAMDEN, N.J. -- No hotels, no bowling alleys, no movie theaters and only one chain supermarket remain in this city of 87,000, a once-thriving industrial mecca overtaken by burned-out rowhouses, boarded-up stores, open-air drug markets, weeds and trash.

Yet here in a sunny, modern office sits Tom Corcoran, trying hard to market Camden as a tourist attraction on the banks of the Delaware River, with a sparkling view of the Philadelphia skyline and a historical hub in the midst of a renaissance.

"You have to take a stand with places like Camden, that they can work," Corcoran said last week, looking out at the aquarium, the river, Philadelphia skyscrapers and a swatch of undeveloped land.

"Camden will come back, but you have to stick it out. You can't walk away."

Corcoran has stuck it out -- for 23 years, while hordes of others were leaving town. In that time, he has watched many of the dreams for Camden's waterfront turn, literally, concrete. A new state aquarium, entertainment center and park now draw 1.25 million people a year. Plans are under way to link the waterfronts of Camden and Philadelphia in a single tourist destination on the scale of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

It's not the easiest job a Wharton School graduate could be doing, selling the nation's fifth-poorest city as a tourist magnet -- particularly with all the jousting among city and state politicians.

So the last thing Corcoran needed last month was headlines announcing that the mayor had declared bankruptcy -- especially considering that the city wasn't really, in practical terms, bankrupt. (The mayor's punch was part of a fight with the state over control of the city's finances.)

A quiet, head-down sort of guy, Corcoran was suddenly into some heavy talking with developers interested in waterfront projects, assuring them that nothing had changed in the city's economics.

Camden Mayor Milton Milan -- in a move described either as reckless grandstanding or a clever plea for help, depending on the source -- was essentially handing over the keys to City Hall, telling the state: If you want to control us, take the whole mess, $25 million deficit and all, and fix it yourself.

Within days, the city and state reached a compromise, allowing the state tighter oversight of the city's finances. But by then the B-word had set off alarms from Wall Street -- where the city's bonds already had junk status -- to City Hall, where employees and vendors wondered whether they'd get paid.

In city neighborhoods, residents and business people were dismayed: Was the city trying to sell itself as reborn or declare itself a charity case?

The bankruptcy "was a stupid idea," said Larry Miles, owner of La Unique African American bookstore. Miles thinks the bad publicity will stall future investment.

Camden, in fact, is a tale of two cities, of gutted factories sharing municipal borders with splashy waterfront attractions.

Once a thriving manufacturing center and home of Campbell's Soup, RCA and the Victor Talking Machine, Camden began losing business and population in the late 1950s, along with the rest of the industrial Northeast. Race riots in the 1960s fueled the exodus, the tax rate surged, and over the next three decades, the city lost nearly a third of its population. Now, 60 percent of residents live in poverty, and half are under age 25.

But in the early 1980s, in response to the early successes of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, city and business leaders began efforts to revitalize the waterfront, even hiring a subsidiary of the Rouse Co., which developed Baltimore's Harborplace, to study the area.

The project has begun to show results, bringing schoolchildren and tourists from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and other nearby states to the aquarium, the new Children's Garden and an amphitheater that features such artists as Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Lauryn Hill. A new aerospace plant kept 1,000 high-tech jobs in the city. Restored ferry service shuttles visitors to and from the Philadelphia waterfront and its seaport museum at Penn's Landing.

On the Camden side, there are proposals for a minor-league baseball team, a family sports and entertainment center, a hotel, a museum of recorded sound and a retired battleship. Promotional literature shows giant video screens the length of two football fields floating on river barges, beaming images to viewers on shore.

The other Camden is a sharply different story. The federal and state governments have taken over or partially control a number of city functions, including housing and law enforcement agencies and city finances.

In the neighborhoods, groups of young boys sit on parked bicycles -- lookouts working for drug dealers, community leaders say. In front of the most well-kept rowhouses, elderly women sit on porches behind locked iron gates.

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