CAMDEN, NJ — A recent string of ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings here have been wrapped in a message that Camden is rising, brushing off opinions that say otherwise.
Keeping true to this theme on Monday was a celebration of the city's first market-rate apartments in 15 years, a $46 million mixed-use waterfront property known as 11 Cooper.
Elected officials and business leaders said the 156-unit building would still merely be a dream if not for the help of certain individuals, including South Jersey powerbroker George E. Norcross III, and state tax incentive programs.
"What we're seeing today, 25 years ago was just a dream, 30 years ago people would not believe this is happening here," said Mayor Frank Moran at a morning news conference, specifically offering praise of Norcross.
The remarks came a week after a special task force released its first report highlighting potential self-dealing in tax credits doled out by the Economic Development Authority to relocating businesses, including those with ties to the Camden-raised insurance executive.
Among the scrutinized awards was a combined $245 million to construct a shared headquarters for Norcross' brokerage firm Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI, and the Michaels Organization, which also own the new 11 Cooper in a partnership. The companies operate out of the neighboring Triad1828 Centre.
The apartment project itself received $18 million in credits under the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Program, one of the two incentive programs set to expire at the end of June.
Moran said that the local officials and Norcross allies in Camden will "continue to unite and fight the good fight."
"Let's celebrate, but we're not done yet. There's a lot of work ahead of us," he said.
The 11 Cooper complex features an additional 5,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. It's the latest reveal from the Liberty Property Trust's $1 billion waterfront plan, ahead of the forthcoming Hilton Garden Inn.
Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey Nash said the development is "a consequence" of decisions made in North Camden, notably the removal of Riverfront State Prison by former Gov. Jon Corzine.
He also cited the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 — the controversial legislation spurring the incentive programs currently under scrutiny — which he said was "created by visionaries who knew that if you provide incentives for businesses to invest their own money" in a city like Camden, they will do so and bring job growth.
John J. O'Donnell, CEO of Michaels, didn't shy away from addressing the task force report or the countless articles that have emerged in response. He said that the EDA programs are working "despite all the attacks and negative rhetoric surrounding Camden."
"What is happening in Camden could not have happened without the tax incentives," O'Donnell said. "It is truly historic what we are witnessing today."
Michaels is one of a handful of organizations working to make available 1,600 new or rehabbed units around the city, said Kris Kolluri, president and CEO of Cooper's Ferry.
The company recently broke ground on affordable housing options at Branch Village Townhomes and Cooper Plaza Townhomes. A combined 136 units serve families living at or below 60% of the city median income, noted as $26,105 in the latest Census data.
The apartments at 11 Cooper, a mix of studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom layouts, are listed between $1,240 and $2,170. But of the 156 rentals, 31 units will be designated as affordable housing for those earning 80% or less than the median income.
About half of the units have already been leased, according to building personnel.
Six of the nine employees hired at 11 Cooper as on-site staff are Camden residents. The employees are making approximately $14 an hour, Kolluri said.
"For us, this is what a partnership looks like, when you're talking about employing people in Camden and being sure there's a great place to live," he said.
The amenities available to building residents include a residential lobby with 24/7 concierge services, a business center, bike storage, a fitness center, and a club room leading to a rooftop terrace. On-site parking will accommodate more than 190 cars.
Each apartment has its own in-unit washer and dryer and comes complete with modern touches such as built-in USB ports.