CAMDEN, NJ — Two former governors sparked the "Camden Rising" effort Thursday, arriving in strong support of a city centered in an intra-party tug of war over controversial state tax-incentive programs.
Govs. James J. Florio and Jon Corzine headlined more than 20 city and county officials, stakeholders, labor leaders, and residents pushing back against doubts in the application of $1.6 billion in credits for business development and relocation.
“Tax credits are mechanisms; they’re not inherently good, or inherently bad,” Florio said, in the 200 Federal St. building adorned with his name. “They’re tools, tools which in the hands of honest, competent people are able to do great things. And great things we’re seeing here in Camden, largely as a result of those tools being used effectively.”
Against a backdrop of inquiries from Gov. Phil Murphy's administration into oversight of the incentive programs, the former governors and others stressed that the credits were vital to bringing investment back to a struggling city.
A task force formed by Murphy in January has been investigating the city's incentives as part of a total $11 billion granted throughout the state. Local officials routinely criticize the task force and its related public hearings — one just a couple weeks earlier — and frame the investigations as politically-motivated attacks on Camden.
Notably absent Thursday afternoon was Chris Christie, the governor who signed into law the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, spurring the state tax credits.
George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey power broker connected to many of the incentivized businesses, also did not make an appearance, though many at the pseudo-news conference were fighting on his behalf.
Reports by WNYC/Pro Publica and the New York Times revealed that $1.1 billion of the tax breaks approved for moves to Camden went to affiliates of Norcross, including his insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, or his brother Philip’s law firm, Parker McCay.
Speakers tiptoed around any direct mention of the incentive controversies while defending the city's rebuilding landscape. Then Florio closed out the rally, addressing the investigation-sized elephant in the room. He called a question to the facts of the situation.
“If someone did something inappropriate, they should be called to account. If someone did something illegal, they should be pursued under the law,” Florio said. “What we can’t be having is defamation by anecdote, defamation by whispering and rumors and stories as to what might be the case."
The testimony of former and current officials received a boost from some residents.
One of those speakers, Michael Douglass, had also championed the city at a groundbreaking ceremony for a relocating company last month.
The Camden native discussed the opportunities that ResinTech, Inc., his employer, can bring to fellow city residents. Having done time in the prison system, Douglass gave his appreciation for the chance that the company took on him more than 10 years ago.
“Now, I’m one of their production managers and I have about 40 people working under me, But it wasn’t easy, it was a grind, it was a struggle, and it was hard,” Douglass said. “I felt like it was important for the community to see someone from here that’s still here that was able to make it.”
Residents outside of the event, meanwhile, argued the opposite: that there is little evidence of the business boom impacting local communities.
Numerous protest signs read “Human need not corporate greed,” and “Thieves!” Others called out George Norcross, who additionally chairs Cooper Health System, another tax-credit recipient.
“These are people (inside the building) who have worked with Norcross,” resident Keith Errol Benson, who has mentored city youth for decades, said on Friday. “Maybe they’re all interested in the (task force) investigation being ceased for individual reasons. And if Camden is doing so great, they should welcome any examination of programs.”
Activists passed around mock currency with Norcross’ face in the center, and in the corners of the bill, the monetary amount read $1 million.
“We are angry because we can’t get support for the people we’re trying to help, but the people in there can get millions,” Benson said. “If these people in the community were respected and given resources we wouldn’t have to be here.”
force in pushing forward with investigations into the incentive programs, Benson said.
In an interview Thursday at an event in Philadelphia, Murphy said of the hearings that there’s been “some fairly troubling data that’s come out, evidence that’s come out.”