When both houses of the Legislature passed a complex bit of legislation to merge parts of New Jersey's three largest universities, it was a proud moment for George E. Norcross III, for whom the announcement represented the culmination of a decade's worth of work.
"This is the most important thing to happen in the city of Camden for 50 years," said Norcross, the influential power broker who runs Conner, Strong & Buckelew and chairs the board of Cooper University Hospital. "A lot of people came together and did the impossible by June 30, (which) every talking head predicted would never happen."
The hotly debated measure faced opposition from Rutgers University's Camden campus almost from the start, with early plans calling for it to be merged into Rowan University, though in return, Rutgers would absorb parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and get a medical school.
As it stands following last night's votes on the latest amendments to the bill, Rutgers–Camden will form a partnership with Rowan, though Rutgers will maintain financial control of its South Jersey campus.
Gov. Chris Christie had set a deadline of the end of the month for a deal to be struck. Norcross said the governor will travel to Camden to sign the bill.
Norcross said in an interview this morning he is excited about the possibilities Camden could realize through a Rowan-Rutgers partnership. He said he expects Rutgers–Camden to triple in size in the next 10 years, and said the growth of the campus will bring thousands of students, who will attract retail and other types of development to the city.
Louis Bezich, chief of staff at Cooper University Hospital, said he expects Rutgers and Cooper — they are several blocks apart — to eventually be connected through new development. Bezich and Norcross both expect more capital and operation dollars to flow to Camden as a result of the agreement, and Norcross said the state's north-south divide should be less pronounced, with Camden getting a larger share of Rutgers funding going forward.
"That was our fight, if you will, from the beginning of (Gov.) Jim McGreevey's term," Norcross said. "Unfortunately, it took this long."
At several points during the negotiations, supporters of the South Jersey partnership seemed to lose control of the message, though Norcross said he was confident since February that a bill would be ready for the governor by June 30.
"There was a lack of a public policy campaign on this, and the opposition defined this during most of the process," Norcorss said. "When you're defined badly, you're in a bad spot."
He credited "a combination of wills" from Newark and Camden, as well as Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), Christie, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees) and Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), with getting the measure passed.
"In the end, the means justified what happened," Norcross said.