CAMDEN, NJ — Standing in front of a vacant site on US Route 30 that once was slated for a supermarket, a group of Camden residents and activists urged Gov. Phil Murphy to veto an extension to the state tax incentive programs, which expired at the end of June.
The group on Thursday also called on Murphy administration officials to come to the city and host a roundtable on helping solve a decades-long issue of a lack of access to healthy food.
One of the projects, a ShopRite, gained support from language added to the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, the legislation expanding state incentive programs. The amendments disqualified the other supermarket proposal for a tax break, the report read. The language had been drafted in part by law firm Parker McCay, which later represented the ShopRite project.
“Behind us may appear to be just a vacant lot, and it is,” said Pastor Amir Khan of the Camden We Choose coalition at a podium. “But it’s also a crime scene."
Statements issued from New Jersey lawmakers in response to the Politico report reflect the sides drawn by prominent Democrats in the tax credit battle.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who supported the bill as Speaker of the General Assembly, called the findings "beyond disturbing," while a spokesperson for Senate President Steve Sweeney, a proponent of the incentive programs, said the Politico report was "largely inaccurate" and "painted an inaccurate picture."
Dana Redd, the former mayor of Camden turned CEO of the Rowan/Rutgers Joint Board of Governors, wrote a piece in defense of the EOA and critical of recent reports, arguing that "market forces, not politicians," led to the failed supermarket projects.
But at that once-promising site in the Marlton section of Camden, the activists focused on pushing forward the fight for justice and equity for the residents. This could be accomplished in part, they said, through a veto of the EOA extension bill, instead of having officials return to the drawing board on economic incentives.
Another significant action to that end is for Economic Development Authority Chairman Kevin Quinn and Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher to head a “supermarket roundtable” in Camden. The meeting would be intended to bring the officials together with grocery store merchants and supermarket developers to craft a plan on combating the city's "food desert" status.
“How can we expect our people to thrive if we don’t have a full-service supermarket?” said Connie Kellum, an activist and small business owner.
With options to fresh produce few and far between, Camden residents are forced to travel to neighboring areas and give up hours in some cases for the trip. Residents often do not have cars, which then leads to the use of costly public transportation.
"For my family, traveling an hour-and-a-half each way to grocery shop is unreasonable, unmanageable, and exhausting,” said Sandra Wiles, a working single mother. “We need help.”
The activists stressed a point that many residents have shared in the wake of a state task force investigation into the tax incentive programs: the people who call the city home are not seeing an impact from the incentives.
Businesses relocating to Camden have pulled in $1.6 billion in tax credits since 2013 through the Grow NJ and Economic Redevelopment and Growth programs.
“Camden residents have a billion reasons to be upset over the lack of impact these incentives have had,” Khan said, “and not one reason to believe that a supermarket was ever coming to town.”