The real story: How Camden is embracing economic development

Over the years, we have seen the headlines, we have watched the reports and listened to the salacious broadcasts about Camden city being the most violent, poorest city in the nation. Those ugly narratives that have been curated and crafted by certain individuals have done nothing but drag down our community and continue to perpetuate something I like to call “poverty porn.” It is just another way our city and our residents have been exploited over the decades on top of the disenfranchisement and deindustrialization this city experienced in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

When I was a student growing up in Camden and playing basketball at Camden High School and then later at Temple University, I would travel all over the nation. When I was asked where I was from, people would cringe when I told them. Their impression was framed by the mass media and later social media narratives that our city was a war zone. That said, these same reactions are the motivation and energy my neighbors and our families use to work longer and harder to succeed. These are the types of headlines that fuel the energy and resiliency of the residents and families that call our city home. It is the kindling that fuels the fire inside our bellies to push harder to fight against the same old tropes and stereotypes that people all over the country perpetuate.

Last week, another piece of misinformation was used to try to tear our city down by attacking several corporations that call our city home — saying they are not employing enough area residents. The whole concept to employment in our city has several layers and is comprehensive, although one of the largest indicators to measure the health of any city or municipality is the current unemployment rate: how many people are working in the city and how many are trying to find work. At this current time, the latest statistic from the state of New Jersey has Camden at a 6.5% rate, which is the lowest the city has had since statistics have been kept and a tremendous reduction from just a year ago, when the unemployment rate was double the current rate at 12.5%. So, our baseline is set with the unemployment rate, then we can look at the workforce and see how that has grown over the last 10 years. At points in the last decade, Camden has led the nation starting back in 2016.

Let’s talk about other tough issues that have plagued the city for generations, namely the decomposition of the public school system that, in 2012, had three college-ready students. Well, we have a native of the city leading the district now and the graduation rates have been on the rise, along with SAT participation and college admissions. In fact, last year, I stood with more than 400 students who participated in the first-ever college signing day.

So, why do these things matter to a city like Camden? No. 1, it shows tremendous progress in workforce development, hiring and education. Are we in a place where we are satisfied? Absolutely not, and in no way will we be until the job is finished.

So, what does that mean? It means we are going to keep pushing forward with our partners at the Camden County One-Stop Career Center, Camden County College, the Workforce Investment Board, Camden Works, Rutgers University – Camden, Rowan University and a variety of other nonprofits that work in this space. It means that I and my staff want to see every person who is willing and able to work with access and opportunity to a job. It means I personally will be supporting residents who want to open small businesses and assist in any way I can for members of my community to follow their dreams for a livable wage they can raise a family on and for the opportunity to invest back in our city through the blessing of homeownership.

Now, let’s continue to peel back the layers when it comes to employment. The largest employer in the region, Cooper University Health Care, has announced a $2 billion expansion in our city. This campus, which employs hundreds of our residents and by its size and scope supports a host of small businesses in our community, continues to put Camden first. Whether it’s support for community policing efforts or medical students volunteering time in our parks, this anchor institution will continue to grow our city and make Camden a better place. This kind of generational investment is the rising tide lifting all boats.

Furthermore, these corporations have invested millions of dollars into our city. Let’s use American Water as an example. In 2021, it donated $1.37 million to Camden organizations that support our residents. And companies such as Holtec, Subaru and ResinTech have remediated several polluted sites in the city to build on land that has laid fallow for decades.

Listen, I’m from this city. And, while my life’s journey has taken me to other places in the past, I’ve always come back to Camden. Let me tell you what I know, what my mother knows and what my family knows: More than 10 years ago, this city was on the edge of dissolution; if it were a company, it would have declared bankruptcy. I do not need someone from Oregon who reports for a New York radio station lecturing my community on public policy.

Today, as a team, and standing on the shoulders of those that have come before me, we have lowered crime, enhanced our schools, raised the city’s bond rating and balanced the budget. As a team, we’ve made the city a place to invest in and not a place to just drive through on your way to another destination. Nevertheless, my mantra is to always keep pushing and, regardless of what is written by someone that lives more than 100 miles away, we will continue to do just that.

On Thursday, I will be hosting a job fair with Camden Works at the Camden High School campus with more than 52 employers looking for city residents. I hope to see everyone there to see the real story behind employment in the city.

Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen is currently in his first full term in office. He previously served on the city council and as the coach of the Camden High basketball team.