CAMDEN, NJ — The group of outspoken locals gathered in the sweltering summer heat to address a crowd of reporters. Rev. Levi Combs III said that was by design.

“Just like we are out here in this hot sun and this humidity, these are the conditions that our children live in, that our children go to school in," Combs said.

Members of grassroots organizations, dubbed the Grassroots Community Leadership, came together outside the First Refuge Progressive Baptist Church on Wednesday afternoon to speak about an environment of inequality still existing in Camden despite business influx over recent years.

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In front of the Kaighn Avenue building where he serves as pastor, Combs said the coalition plans to continue to "shed light on the apartheid-like conditions" they claim are the reality for residents.

The news conference was held in response to comments made last week at the third hearing of the special task force on the use of state tax incentive programs, where city and county officials and activists clashed.

On Tuesday, July 9, the panel appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January heard public testimony for the first time about the effectiveness of Economic Development Authority tax credits granted to business relocations, including some $1.6 billion earmarked for moves to Camden.

Companies that have set up new headquarters as a result include Subaru, Holtec, and American Water. Many are connected to South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III and have been targets of the task force.

Norcross insurance firm Conner Strong and Buckelew had an office tower built on the waterfront to be shared with NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization.

At the task force hearing, Mayor Frank Moran and County Freeholder Director Lou Capelli, among other proponents of the programs, described a city on the rise and benefiting from the investment. 

The activists on Wednesday said this is not a true assessment.

"I watched how this mayor who continues to fail this city and continues to fail these residents said that these tax credits are working," Combs said. "That is a blatant untruth. Because if Camden was rising, then sections like Parkside would be rising as well. The residents would be rising with jobs."

Officials cite that the companies brought to Camden through Grow NJ or Economic Redevelopment and Growth Program, the now-defunct tax-break systems of the controversial Economic Opportunity Act, have hired 850 residents to this point.

But the activists argue that written documentation from city government or the EDA has not been released to the public to verify this fact.

County spokespersons point to an independent report prepared earlier this year on Camden progress for evidence of the job growth. While the report does make note of job figures, the purported 850 new hires are never explicitly mentioned.

A graphic on one of the 44 pages says 5,000 new jobs will be coming to Camden. Another section reads that 1,939 jobs have been delivered compared with a requirement of 627 jobs. There is no detail as to the specific hires made by each EDA-awarded company.

Meanwhile, an internal state analysis from the Division of Local Government Services obtained by the Inquirer revealed last week that the city is facing a "severe" revenue problem going forward and the 10-year deferment of property tax payments for the newly-arrived businesses only worsens the issue. Camden is already the most reliant of any New Jersey city on state aid.

Combs said the news conference also brought the chance for a unified message from various activist groups that have felt unjustly spoken for publically by city officials. Two months ago, Moran, council president Curtis Jenkins, and state Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez issued a statement that the governor was not welcome in the city due to his "attacks" on residents.

That view was not shared by the local groups, acting on behalf of many residents, who wrote and hand-delivered their own letter to Murphy during his visit on July 4.

"The residents are losing while major corporations are gaining," Combs said.

Mo'Neke Singleton-Ragsdale, acting president of the Camden High School PTO, said there is a need for service jobs and entry-level opportunities that "better fit" the community. This did not match with the companies drawn in through the incentive programs, she said.

"I don't know if you've looked at our demographics, but out of our 77,000 (citizens), we have more youth and young adults in our city than we do adults, so those are the type of jobs we want," Singleton-Ragsdale said.

As attendees shuffled inside the church, the local group leaders continued the discussion.

Dr. Doris Carpenter, the education chairperson with the Camden County NAACP, said the status of city schools and education needs to be considered when arguing a rising Camden. She said the school district regaining local control from the state is paramount.

"Camden doesn't rise until the residents rise, and the residents don't rise until the children rise," she said.

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