EDA investment has been part of watershed transformation of Camden — and wasn’t that exact purpose of Economic Opportunity Act?

By Brigid Callahan Harrison, Montclair State University
Montclair | May 10, 2019 at 12:47 pm
Op-Ed

(Editor’s note: This op-ed originally appeared on NJ.com. It is reprinted here with permission.)

There’s another round of “dog pile on the rabbit” occurring in New Jersey. In this case, it’s politicians and the media bashing the how the Economic Development Authority has been doling out tax credits to businesses connected with South Jersey political leader George Norcross — the rabbit, it would seem, at the bottom of this particular pile of dogs.

I’ve sat and watched this with incredulity, because it appears that everyone so scandalized by the Economic Development Authority’s actions seems a bit clueless about the law itself, and what its intentions were.

A primer:

What was the intended purpose of the Economic Opportunity Act?

The bill was designed as a mechanism to help bring economic development to South Jersey, specifically creating set-asides for the eight southern counties, especially Camden. Why? As Matt Friedman (then with NJ.com, now with Politicoreported in 2013, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) noted that in the “last incentive bill … almost 97 cents out of every dollar went to Jersey City and Newark. If something isn’t done, South Jersey won’t see any of it.” At that point, $211 million had gone to Prudential for its headquarters in Newark. Honeywell received $40 million to move five miles from Morris Township to Morris Plains, and on and on.

But the geographical inequities in state funding weren’t limited to the Economic Development Authority: Millions of dollars of Casino Reinvestment Development Authority money had gone to North Jersey pet projects. CRDA money was taken from needy Atlantic City and used to help build a museum to Yogi Berra (who I love, but that’s beside the point) on my Montclair State University campus (which I also love, but is also beside the point) in one of the most affluent communities in the state (which is the point). The EOA was designed to address some of these historic inequities.

Who supported it?

In short, almost everyone. OK, not everyone. A total of seven legislators in both houses opposed the measure, with the lone Republican opponent in the Senate citing his support of the free market system rather than government subsidies as his motivation for opposition. The point is that sometimes, in politics, deals are made. Through logrolling, one legislator supports a bill that doesn’t matter to her in order to gain support of a measure that will benefit her constituents. It’s not pretty, but it’s how politics is done. And the overwhelming majority of the state Legislature supported the set-asides for South Jersey.

Why Camden?

When this legislation was drafted, Camden was the poorest city in the nation. Its unemployment rate was approaching 40 percent, nearly half of its families lived below the poverty line, and the average income was about $26,000 (compared with a statewide average of over $70,000 at the time). And, unlike most of the state, the damage to Camden’s economy hadn’t been caused by the Great Recession. Rather, Camden had witnessed decades of abandonment by industry and outmigration by residents.

So, what’s the deal with the George Norcross ‘connections’? 

He’s the most powerful unelected man in the state, and, by all accounts, the Camden native envisioned Camden’s transformation. Should it be surprising that companies that want to do business in Camden are “connected” to him, or, heaven forbid, he convinced companies to locate in Camden? Is there something illegal about that?

At the height of his power, could you imagine development in Newark’s North Ward in which the principals didn’t go kiss Steve Abudato Sr.’s ring? Or major development in Union City where Brian Stack wasn’t tangentially involved? If a company is looking to secure tax incentives, wouldn’t it be reasonable that they contract with a law firm that specializes in securing these incentives?

In watching the recriminations of companies connected to Norcross, I couldn’t help but ask, “So what?” Should business leaders with “connections” to Norcross be precluded from receiving the tax incentives? Is there something illegal about having a connection to the man? Are these people who are so incensed new to politics? To New Jersey? Do they not understand how spheres of influence work?

Have you been to Camden lately?

Since the EDA’s investment, the poverty rate is down 5 percent, the unemployment rate is down 8 percent, the high school graduation rate is up 20 percent, and the crime rate is down nearly 60 percent. There have been improvements in public safety and green spaces to encourage Subaru, Holtec International and the Philadelphia 76ers’ employees to stay in town; the Eds & Meds anchor institutions — Rutgers University and Cooper University Hospital — have expanded their downtown footprints; market-rate housing is being built for millennials who are increasingly seeing Camden as desirable. A hotel is opening.

I am not claiming that all of these indicators are a direct result of the EDA investment exclusively, but, clearly, the investment has been part of a watershed, systemic transformation of the city of Camden, what the Wall Street Journal characterized as “a development boom.” And isn’t that exactly what the purpose of the Economic Opportunity Act was?

Brigid Callahan Harrison is professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in American government. A frequent commentator on state and national politics, she is the author of five books on American politics. Like her on Facebook at Brigid Callahan Harrison. Follow her on Twitter @BriCalHar.

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