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Industry Insights

A case for Camden and a call to Amazon

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On a cold and dreary Saturday in January, as a wintry mix pounded the pavement on Federal Street in Camden. I raced from my car into the Camden Technology Center where 200 entrepreneurs, investors, and professionals were eagerly awaiting a six hour marathon of presentations from VC firms, successful tech startups, and Philadelphia area business gurus.

The scene was surreal and the memory is indelibly inked in my mind.  Camden. Camden, New Jersey, the City that formerly topped or neared the top of the list of most dangerous cities in the United States year after year. 

Why did 200 entrepreneurs, and investors flock to Camden on a Saturday in the dead of winter? 

The answer—an incredible renaissance of the City fueled by an influx of capital, savvy state and local leadership that created economic development programs to spur growth, and, in my mind most importantly—organic growth of a technology startup scene with an insatiable appetite for development and an unwavering commitment to re-chart the course of the City of Camden.

So, when I first read Bloomberg’s September 7 article detailing Amazon’s recent efforts to locate a home for its second headquarters, naturally I thought, like a typecast actress, Camden is the only place fitting enough for the role. The City’s benefits allow it to handily best competition for the home of any tech giant, not just Amazon (I was working on a similar piece to attract Uber and Lyft to Camden when Amazon announced its search).  In fact, while I believe there are four core benefits that make Camden the perfect city for Amazon to call its second home—those being Location, Logistics, Incentives, and Legacy—I believe each standing alone, is sufficient to dominate Amazon’s other metropolitan courters. 

Situated on the banks of the Delaware River and set against the backdrop of Philadelphia, the City of Camden is less than five miles from Philadelphia City Hall, less than 100 miles from the New York City Public Library, and less than 150 miles from the United States Capitol Building in Washington D.C.  Camden’s proximity to its sister cities is even more apparent when mass transit options are considered.   With PATCO connecting the City to Philadelphia, NJ Transit’s River Line connecting it to the rest of the state, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (by way of PATCO or the River Line) connecting it to the entire Northeast, and Philadelphia’s International Airport (eleven miles from Camden) connecting it to every corner of the world, Camden’s proximity to major metropolitan centers is seemingly unparalleled.  Aside from offering significant quality of living advantages for employees (Philadelphia’s restaurants, bars, shops, etc.), this proximity allows a company like Amazon to cast a wide net when seeking talent.  With engineering powerhouses like Princeton and Penn in Camden’s backyard and Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Harvard, and Yale all less than six hours by train, a deep talent pool would surround Amazon.

Camden’s central location between the densely populated New Jersey and sprawling Pennsylvania makes internal logistical sense as well.  Thirteen of Amazon’s seventy-eight fulfillment centers are located in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (three additional locations were recently announced for Cranbury, Edison, and Logan, New Jersey).  With nearly a fifth of Amazon’s warehousing capabilities located in Camden’s home state or the state with which it shares a river, coordination and communication with ground-level support will likely improve, thereby increasing productivity.  Studies have shown reductions in distance between a corporate headquarters and its plant facilities may increase plant productivity as much as 1.3% to 1.4%. Not only will fulfillment centers feel the proximity bump, but Amazon’s software development centers in Pittsburgh and New York City, both stand to benefit from nearness to a second home in Camden.

Of the four aforementioned benefits, Location, Logistics, Incentives, and Legacy, the one with the largest economic impact for Amazon is undoubtedly Incentives.  The New Jersey Economic Development Authority, an independent government entity, tasked with creating public-private partnerships to provide capital access to the New Jersey business economy, has taken substantial steps towards the redevelopment of Camden since 2010.   Through its Grow NJ Assistance Program, the NJEDA offers businesses creating jobs in New Jersey eligibility for tax credits ranging from $500 to $5,000 per job, per year; with bonus credits ranging from $250 to $3,000.  The program has translated to significant savings for major corporations that have recently relocated to Camden in including Holtec International, which received $260 million in incentives, Subaru, which received $117 million, Lockheed Martin, which received $107 million, American Water, which received $164 million, and metal recycling company EMR Eastern, which received $253 million.  Such credits significantly reduce the cost of constructing a new headquarters and/or overhead, and, in the case of Amazon can translate to a 5% savings on its planned $5 billion project for its second home.

Lastly, Camden offers Amazon an opportunity to shape its legacy and seal its brand image as a driver of change and stability in an area ravished by years of governmental and economic neglect, impropriety, and misadventure.  Which brings me back to that cold and dreary Saturday in January when I attended the UP Conference presented by Waterfront Ventures.  During the event, I was shocked to learn a co-working space was opening along the Camden Waterfront in April.  In the four short months since the Waterfront Lab’s grand opening in a remarkable 1872 State Bank of New Jersey building, beautifully renovated and outfitted by the architecture and design firm, City Invincible, approximately twenty startups have moved to Camden and call the Waterfront Lab home. The City’s strong startup undercurrent, coupled with recent large-scale development projects totaling close to $1.5 billion signal Camden’s renaissance is well underway.  However, an Amazon headquarters would solidify Camden’s changing trajectory and ensure a steady course of community and economic development is maintained.

That said, I urge Amazon to consider this bootstrapped, self-made tech hub for its second home. 

By Brett Buterick, associate attorney at Hill Wallack LLP. He concentrates his practice in corporate law, venture capital and emerging markets, and creditors’ rights. Hill Wallack has recently collaborated with Waterfront Lab in Camden where it acts as the attorney-in-residence for the lab.

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