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Urban Transit subsidy failed Camden, but its successor will take hold

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Anthony Perno says his call volume has quadrupled since the Economic Opportunity Act was signed. The bill has special incentives for Camden projects.
Anthony Perno says his call volume has quadrupled since the Economic Opportunity Act was signed. The bill has special incentives for Camden projects. - (AARON HOUSTON)

When the Urban Transit Hub tax credit program became law in 2008, it was ushered in by a series of ribbon-cuttings in the north, with major employers such as Panasonic, Prudential Financial and Goya using large tax credits to relocate or expand in North Jersey cities.

Camden was one of the nine cities targeted by Urban Transit Hub, but when the money ran out, there was almost nothing to show for it.

Industry leaders in South Jersey say that won't be the case under the Economic Opportunity Act.

Anthony Perno, CEO of the Camden-based Cooper's Ferry Partnership, said his call volume has quadrupled following the bill signing.

For too long, Perno said, Camden's economic prospects have hinged on the same goals as cities to the north: What was good for the golden geese of Jersey City and Newark was good for the gander.

But that isn't so, Perno said.

"The New York metropolitan market is a very different market than the Philadelphia metropolitan market," he said.

The new incentive thresholds will be the key here. Perno said the types of small to midsized companies Camden needs to attract were not able to come under Urban Transit Hub, which required companies to make $50 million capital investments and bring at least 250 full-time employees.

The new law will change that, said real estate attorney Ted Zangari.

The one-size-fits-all capital investment threshold of Urban Transit Hub was, in retrospect, "silly," said Zangari, who chairs the redevelopment law practice group at Sills, Cummis & Gross, in Newark.

"Certainly it hurt Camden and South Jersey — which frankly don't, in many cases, have the ability to bring in projects of that density," he said.

State Sen. Donald Norcross agreed.

A $50 million project in Newark might seem doable, said Norcross (D-Audubon), but in Camden, it's considered a "huge job." Under Urban Transit Hub, he said, "97 cents of every dollar went north of 195."

COMPETING WITH PENNSYLVANIA

Perhaps more important to Camden than the lower project thresholds is the city's designation as a Garden State Growth Zone in the law. That will help it compete for investment both within New Jersey and across the Delaware River, where Philadelphia has been taking advantage of aggressive incentives to woo businesses to lower-cost Pennsylvania.

The hope is that the growth zone designation can compete with the Keystone Opportunity Zone program and 10-year property tax abatement policies across the river. Under New Jersey's new law, new construction projects could be eligible for up to 20 years of property tax relief.

South Jersey, said Norcross, is now "competing on the same level."

And while Camden looks to attract new business, the greater South Jersey area is hoping new incentives will help to retain those already there. A major player in that storyline is Subaru, which has been considering moving its U.S. headquarters out of Cherry Hill. A leading alternative is Philadelphia's Navy Yard, but the Economic Opportunity Act has put Camden in the conversation, also.

That's no accident. Norcross doesn't deny some of the law's language is directly focused on keeping the company in New Jersey, but he doesn't think it's a problem.

"If we're working hard to keep a major company in New Jersey, then I think that's a good thing," he said.

Zangari also pointed to the importance of the regional distinctions in the new law.

"For all the chatter out there about the South Jersey specials that were added to the legislation, the reality is that those special provisions are absolutely necessary to attract business to the region," he said.

The Grow New Jersey subsidy is one of two surviving tax credit programs offered by the Economic Opportunity Act. One of the last awards to make it before the law was signed was a $40 million lure to get Destination Maternity Corp. from Philadelphia to a pair of Burlington County sites.

Destination Maternity will build a warehouse in Florence and renovate an office in Moorestown, bringing a total of 620 jobs. In a statement, CEO Ed Krell said, "Without this financial incentive package, it would have been impossible for us to make this relocation project a reality."

THE RIGHT TIMING

It's also the right time for a program like this. Established players like Campbell Soup Co. and Cooper University Hospital are investing in their neighborhoods, while the merger of Rutgers and Rowan universities is creating a base for higher education. That's a magnet for smaller companies that want to do business with these titans.

The group is "all coming together to say the exact same thing at the same exact time: 'This city is ready for business,' " Perno said. "We didn't have that before."

One of the city's highest-profile properties that stands to benefit from the new law is the Riverfront State Prison site, near the Ben Franklin Bridge.

Earlier this month, developer Waterfront Renaissance Associates announced it had begun working with local and state officials on a feasibility project for a potential World Trade Center at the site, which is controlled by the Economic Development Authority. The project would bring 2.3 million square feet of commercial space to the Camden waterfront.

Cooper's Ferry has its own extensive redevelopment plans for the site, including mixed-use, recreational and commercial development. Perno said community input has played a role in shaping the site's future.

The speed at which companies may flock to Camden and South Jersey as a result of the new incentives law is widely debated. Some say months while others, like Perno, say give it a year or two.

The first deal should be that first domino falling over, he said.

"What will really change the perception of Camden at the end of the day is when that first big company makes its decision to move," Perno said.

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrgeorge

Andrew George

Andrew George

Andrew George covers the Statehouse from NJBIZ's Trenton bureau. Born and raised in N.J., Andrew has also spent time as a reporter in D.C., Texas and Pa. His email is andrewg@njbiz.com and he is @AndrGeorge on Twitter.

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