76ers to Camden: the South Jersey Strategy

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Next City pegs the price of each job coming to Camden with the Sixers practice facility at $1.6 million. New Jersey Policy Perspective’s president, Gordon MacInnes places the number at $328,000. NJ.com says that there will be $76.6 in “direct and indirect taxes”, including “spillover effects,” outstripped by the $82 million in state grants. And Tom Knoche says: “What does this mean for the residents of Camden? Not much.” But this is the strategy. Strong political presence in Trenton means access to state dollars. From the perspective of local actors, these are free dollars. Unfortunately, these free dollars come linked to inefficient policy.

The irony in the 76ers coming to Camden is that it happens at a time when stadiums subsidies are coming under increased scrutiny. Those stadiums promise potential; they bring the siren song of gentrification and surrounding retail. Camden is familiar with those promises; the Camden Riversharks baseball stadium was built on that foundation. Increasingly, those promises are ringing hollow, and one reason may be that these stadiums simply draw dollars away from other entertainment options. That means in the short-term, those options suffer, and in the long-term projections see these other options cut into the stadiums profits.

That’s all academic. The 76ers aren’t coming to Camden, their practice facility is. That comes with virtually none of the development promise; there will be some auxiliary dollars, and a private facility that perhaps sends a signal to other developers that Camden is viable. Policy folks and politicians can’t help but pile on:

State Sen. Michael Doherty sharply critiqued the deal in an official statement, saying “the facility will essentially be a free gift from the hard-pressed taxpayers of New Jersey to Joshua Harris, the billionaire owner of the team … Local governments are being forced to cut to the bone … How can New Jersey not make this year’s full pension payment, but the state government can find an extra $82 million for a basketball practice facility?”

And Diana Lind of Next City closes her argument by pointing out:

The contract goes on to note that if just 1,000 jobs were created, the city’s unemployment rate would drop by 1 percent. At the rate of $82 million per 50 jobs, that would be an untenable task.

But is that the right comparison? Cooper’s Ferry, the non-profit/power player tied to most waterfront development, often makes the case that these dollars wouldn’t be in Camden for other projects. The comparison is not to what else the money could be used for, but to nothing happening.

I call this “developer logic” and it always leads to one conclusion: something is better than nothing. But it is also part of a broader strategy that South Jersey status quo have used to explain the benefits of their rise to power in the state. The plan is to leverage that support into more state resources for the southern part of the state. The funds for this project come from the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013; a Sen. Don Norcross bill and a reflection of South Jersey power. But it also shows that state-wide support is there for business development, not poverty programs.

The 76ers facility shows the difficulty of leveraging that regional power strategy into good policy. When the only way dollars will come is through corporate subsidies, it lets businesses suck all the benefit out of urban areas by playing cities against each other. The 76ers did that to perfection here.

The current strategy for Camden’s revitalization appears to be flexing regional power to gain state resources. But the political context means those dollars won’t typically be used efficiently. Camden needs to look for strategies that see a higher percentage of funds go towards its key problems of unemployment and blight. In the current political context of the state, that’s a difficult task. How you feel about it likely explains how you feel about the 76ers practice facility.

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