Donald Norcross has spent years watching Camden try to compete with Pennsylvania for jobs and businesses, a task he said was all but impossible with the city's reputation and the tax breaks offered across the Delaware River.
But that changed with the passage last year of the Economic Opportunity Act, the Garden State's landmark incentives law that has leveled the playing field for South Jersey.
Just how confident is he? The state senator predicted Wednesday that, as soon as the end of March, there will be "two major announcements of companies coming to this city."
"The downside is I can't share with you who they are," Norcross told hundreds of area stakeholders at Camden's Adventure Aquarium. "But as soon as these announcements come in, then you're really going to see what happens."
Norcross, whose district includes Camden, spoke Wednesday during a forum hosted by the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, the nonprofit organization focused on revitalizing the embattled city. The event was something of a pep rally for its economic development future, as local leaders and state officials look to ride the momentum from the new incentives programs and the prospects of competing with Philadelphia.
Norcross recalled the evolution of the EOA, which grew over time as South Jersey lawmakers took the reins last spring and carved out additional incentives for their region. It was a needed step, he said, because the high costs of New York City allowed places such as Newark and Jersey City to take advantage of earlier programs.
"They weren't designed for the northern part of the state," he said. "But the fact is they worked better in the northern part of the state."
Such incentives were less successful for South Jersey because Camden had to compete with Philadelphia on a pricing level – a challenge considering Pennsylvania's aggressive tax abatements – while still grappling with its high crime and bad reputation.
But with the passage of the new incentives bill in September, "Camden is certainly open for business," Norcross said. The thresholds for qualifying for incentives are much lower in the city, and companies can receive generous tax abatements for at least a decade.
Those sentiments were echoed at the event by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who said "it is absolutely cheaper to business here in New Jersey on this side of the river." She cited an unnamed Fortune 100 company in Philadelphia that once balked at a $25 million incentive package to cross the Delaware.
That company today is reconsidering, now that the state can offer double that amount thanks to the new law, she said.
"That means Camden has a seat at the table," Guadagno said. "And Camden will continue to have a seat at the table as long as the Economic Opportunity Act begins to work."
And despite the north-south rivalry that exists in New Jersey, she told the audience she wants Camden to be "the next Jersey City." The waterfront city 25 years ago "was a mud flat," but is now one of the state's economic hotbeds.
"Today you have a clean slate right here in Camden," she said. "You have the tools. You need to make Camden the next golden shore for New Jersey."