In 2012, in just her second year as mayor of Camden, Dana Redd made a decision that she knew was not a good move for her political career.
She knew, however, that it was good for the city.
“The Camden school district was performing in the lowest 5% of all school districts throughout the state of New Jersey — 23 out of 26 of the public schools were failing,” she said. “At that time, we did what was probably not politically smart: We asked for the state to come in and to intervene so that we could create better outcomes for young people, reduce truancy and increase the high school graduation rates.”
Redd knew state intervention would help establish two pipelines — one that went from cradle to college to career and another that went from cradle to career.
She also knew it would work.
“That was my life story,” she said.
Redd’s story is a Camden success story.
She was born there and raised there (by her grandmother). She became the first person in her family to graduate from college (Rutgers University-Camden) before starting a career of public service, serving as a state senator before becoming mayor — and then serving as CEO of the Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors.
Redd, who also served on the city council and as the head of the housing authority, recently was named CEO of the Camden Community Partnership.
“My life’s work has been focused on Camden, and it continues in this role,” she said.
Why Redd feels housing is next challenge for Camden
Camden is a safer city, has better schools and more job opportunities than it has had in decades. Simply put, there is hope.
But is there housing?
ROI-NJ asked Dana Redd, the former mayor, state senator and holder of many key positions involving the city, what the next issue the city needs to solve. We asked her to complete this sentence: “If Camden can do (blank) then it will have (blank).”
Here’s her answer.
“In addition to public safety, education, economic growth and job creation, which we are continuously addressing, I think the next place we go is housing inventory,” she said. “There is a huge demand for housing. We need to have student housing, workforce housing, we need to make sure that we are offering opportunities for homeownership, and opportunities for neighborhood stabilization programs and housing stabilization.
“One such program that the Camden Community Partnership has overseen has been our CHIP program. It was known as Camden Housing Improvement Program, where we were able to do life safety improvements and facade improvements to over 480 homes throughout the city of Camden. It was a grant program that touched every segment of the city.
“We’ve also advanced our Camden Power Program, which is a program to institute energy efficiency systems that can help residents control their utility costs. We know a lot of our housing stock is older, and just upgrading energy efficiency systems, whether it’s with heating or electrical, can help residents control their utility costs. It’s a very successful program that CCP is overseeing.
“To complete the sentence: If we could do more housing production throughout all of Camden city, we would be an even more vibrant city.”
One that can compete with — or be an alternative to — Philadelphia.
“We’re at a place where we need to focus on housing and making sure that we have housing inventory so that residents not only want to remain here, but others may want to move to Camden because of the housing market,” she said. “Housing prices on this side of the bridge are much lower than they are on the Philadelphia side of the bridge.”
Crime is down to its lowest level in 50 years, education is up and the unemployment rate is at its lowest level since records were kept. Public and private investment in Camden is at its highest level since the industrial revolution.
Investments from both private and public entities — including Campbell Soup, Holtec, American Water, Subaru, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment and Cooper University Health Care — are bringing revenue and jobs to the community.
Redd recently spoke with ROI-NJ about Camden’s past, present and future.
Here’s a bit of the interview, edited for space and clarity.
ROI-NJ: Regarding the state of Camden today, as head of Camden Community Partnership, what are the next steps for a city that has made such strides?
Dana Redd: We have had a lot of significant progress in Camden. In addition to our fiscal stability, which has recently been bumped from a BBB+ up to an A-, we are celebrating a transformation from one of the most dangerous cities in America to one of the safest in over 50 years. Plus, we have made many positive improvements in academic outcomes, where young people are not only graduating, but they are considering going to college and universities and entering the workforce prepared.
Our mission here at Camden Community Partnership is to serve as a catalyst for the preservation and growth of a vibrant Camden. And, so, I see the team here building on that success, not just here on the waterfront, but working in the community with our residents, and working with community-based stakeholders and organizations to create vibrancy in those neighborhoods.
I will also say I hope to improve health equity and address the social determinants of health. Reducing barriers to access is my focus area as I come into this position.
ROI: Cities have to build in a variety of ways: quality of life (which includes policing, infrastructure, housing and education), balanced economic development (how do you get jobs/careers there) — and all of that with a measure of hope/optimism/spirit. How do you measure those three areas in Camden now?
DR: Reflecting back and looking where we are in the present day, one of the challenges we had to overcome was despair. We had to create the energy around believing in the possibilities of Camden.
I am excited to work with the dynamic Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen, who just takes that whole belief system and really elevates it with momentum, because he believes. And others are really getting involved in this work now. Residents are showing up to hear the city’s progress. Back in August, the mayor moved the State of the City to Camden High School because, not only were businesses and CEOs coming to hear the report, but residents, too. Many seniors came dressed in their church attire because they were so proud of what Camden has become.
I think the people of Camden see that we care, and that Mayor Vic cares about them. So, whether it’s the youth that he motivates, or even the senior citizens — there’s just something about his presence that underscores that Camden is strong, and that, when we collaborate, we can really get the job done.
ROI: Talk about where Camden could go from here.
DR: Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do, but the future for Camden remains bright. Especially with the many initiatives we have moving forward.
The ‘Eds and Meds’ initiative, which began in 2002, has infused hundreds of millions of dollars in redevelopment into Camden while educating the state’s next generation of health care workers. It really defined a new identity for Camden.
We are now in our third phase of building upon on the investment in downtown Camden and throughout many of the neighborhoods, where Virtua Lourdes anchors Parkside and Liberty Park. We also have the big announcement that Cooper University Health Care recently made of its $2 billion expansion plan to its campus that will add three buildings.
Then there’s the transformational project in center city Camden that is linked to the $250 million investment for the Walter Rand Transportation Terminal, which is in the planning stage as we speak. The Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors (has begun) their planning process for the third phase of the health sciences campus.
So, when you take and aggregate all that development together, not only are we creating vibrancy and defining our center city location, where we have the third-busiest transportation hub, but we’re creating jobs.
The role model
The catchy line goes like this: You have to see it to believe it.
For women — especially women of color — the opportunities to see someone who looked like them in a position of power have been few and far between.
We asked Dana Redd, the former mayor, state senator and holder of many key positions involving the city of Camden, to talk about being a role model in her community.
Here’s what she said.
“I think about it often,” she said. “I know that being a role model, and even serving here is an enormous responsibility.
“There were many individuals that mentored me along the way on my journey. I didn’t just arrive at this place without individuals — my mother, my grandmother and other community mothers that helped to nurture me, and shared words of wisdom with me. I’m at that point in my life where I recognize the responsibility of mentoring and preparing others.
“There’s a pipeline of leadership that is being prepared to step into these positions. And there are a number of young men and women that I work with from time to time, to mentor them about government, about leading nonprofits and about working in the community. It’s really about serving others and not being self-serving. I enjoy the mentorship role that I’ve now taken on.”
ROI: Talk about your former role as CEO of the Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors. How do you measure the value of the organization to the community?
DR: Our mission was to leverage the eds, meds and research institutions in Camden to create economic growth, but also to expand our health care capacity.
We had three objectives, in terms of how we accomplished that mission: education, economic development and civic engagement.
We know that education is the only way to lift oneself out of poverty. So, we helped to establish a ladder of economic opportunity for many of our young people through workforce training programs for residents to prepare them for careers in health care. One program that I was proud of was the certified medical assistant training program. By working with students that were graduating from our traditional public high schools that were trained through an accelerated program in partnership with Camden County College, (we) helped them secure their positions and pass their examinations, then connected them to employment opportunities, helped them through the interviewing process. And then, we did a retention, a program to just see how they were making out.
In the economic development space, our objective was to kick off the urban planning process with the residents in both Landing Square and Cooper Plaza. We started that process in 2021, where residents were invited into the Joint Health Sciences Center to help us to visualize what the campus could be, which is where they’re at right now. Some of the areas that were discussed were pedestrian improvements, greening spaces, community murals, housing, retail amenities and cafes and things that make for a vibrant neighborhood.
Thirdly, in the civic engagement objective, I think what I am most proud of is working with two public research institutions — Rowan and Rutgers Camden — to create the South Jersey Institute for Population Health, which works with researchers and faculty from both institutions, but also the community, to address population health issues in both rural and urban communities. That is up and running now. They are funding research projects. They are in their second iteration and call for proposals.
I feel that, as I moved on from that space to this space, I helped the organization to grow, and really touched the community even more.
But, let me say this: There are many spokes on this wheel. We have to focus and collaborate to really facilitate partnerships in order to address the issues that confront the city. And we get to do that under the leadership of the mayor and, through that support, we can bring to bear all the resources that each of us bring to the table for a more vibrant Camden.
ROI: How important is the city’s relationship with Rowan University — and with all South Jersey? How important is it for Camden to connect to all its outlying communities?
DR: When Camden does well, South Jersey does well. And you know, there is a relationship with Camden and Rowan University, President (Ali) Houshmand, Provost Tony Lowman and others that are really invested in this work that we’re doing here in the city. We also have the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University that is not only preparing the next generation of physicians, but they’re doing work in the community around population medicine, population health, public health, that is really helping to address a number of social determinants of health. We also have also a strong relationship with Rutgers, which is very crucial to the city as a whole. I look forward to when the Glassboro-Camden Light Rail Line is up and running, because that will also connect Camden to the Glassboro campus and communities along the light rail.
ROI: Last question. For all you’ve accomplished, there are critics. Some point to your various jobs and say they were simply pension-building roles. Are you offended by that accusation? How do you respond?
DR: My pathway was always directed toward this area. So, in politics, in government and in ways where I could make a difference in Camden — in any position where I’ve ever served, everything has always been about Camden. It has always been about what I can do; what have I done for Camden today? And, at the end of the day, I will always live, breathe and eat Camden, so to speak, and fight for Camden. And that’s where my focus lies. We are just going to dig in to do the work.
Reach Camden Community Partnership at: camdencommunitypartnership.com or call 856-757-9154.