Everything’s coming up Camden.
Known mainly for its violence and poverty, the city across the river from Philadelphia may be witnessing a recovery. Violence is down, the bond rating is up, and a grocery store has even opened. The 76ers are even making it their second home, locating their practice facilities here in exchange for a major tax break. The city is a long way from being placid and perfect, but it’s climbed beyond the depths it had sunk to just a few years ago, when the state had to take it over entirely.
Mayor Dana Redd talked to Philly Mag recently about the work that has gone into reviving her city. “Ultimately and over time, I expect to see our unemployment rate come down, I expect to see more citizens working, and to attract a middle-class base back to Camden,” she said.
You’ve been mayor a few years now. When you took office, the city — I think from a lot of people’s perspective — might have seemed irrevocably broken, certainly from a poverty and public safety standpoint. Why on earth did you want the job in the first place?
Well it’s interesting that you raise that question. Before I took office in 2010, Camden was literally described as a car with no engine. But I have to say that Camden has always been my passion and my life’s work. As a life-long resident here in the city, and even in the days of my youth, my father was involved politically and sort of instructed our family not to leave the city because the city was going to come back.
From outside of the city now, it appears right now we have hit a moment where Camden maybe is breaking its losing streak a little bit. We’ve stories stories in the last couple of months about how the murder rate is dropping, how the bond rating is up, how you’ve secured funds to demolish hundreds of abandoned homes. It looks like maybe the city’s finally figured out how to climb back up after decades of being down- how is it looking from the inside?
You know it’s been a lot of hard work I would say in the first four years. When I look back over the first term it really was eight years of work done in four. And one of the critical challenges I had upon assuming office was transitioning the city local government back to local control after having been taken over by the state, and getting my hands around the finances and budget and making sure we knew our financial position.
And so over the last four years, because of the financial restructuring that we’ve endeavored, we’ve been able to get an unqualified audit opinion for three years in a row — and that is something that has not been celebrated in Camden. (Editor’s Note: “To give an unqualified opinion Bowman Company must have found that accounting rules were followed properly and the city’s financial reports are accurate,” the Inquirer explained in reporting the achievement.) And then we went before Standard Poor’s and received an investment-grade bond rating — again something that had not been achieved in the last 15 years. And so now, we have an $8 million bond that we’re going to utilize to do demolition for over 616 properties in the city of Camden, and we want to do that within a 12-month time frame.
Let’s talk a little bit about crime, because that’s been one notable area. Of course Camden’s been tagged kind of as this “murder capital” for a long time. It’s been about a year-and-a-half since you fired the police force that was here. The county was brought in to run things. You have more officers on the street, albeit at a lower pay. You’ve got shootings are down, violent crime is down, murders are down, you just went 40 whole days without a murder in fact.
Is one of the lessons here that we should be busting unions? Or is it more complex than that?
So I think it’s much more complex than that. The regional police force was not a new idea or had been visited before, we just happened to implement it due to our fiscal challenges in the first term. But what I can say is that the process was very transparent; I think it was fair to the existing men and women of the former Camden police department that, you know, those who applied pretty much were taken over to the new force. So out of 160 that applied, 150, if I’m not mistaken, were hired under the new paradigm and actually helped to transition and to do the field training operations for the new members that would join them.
I think we have to be innovative in how we address the problems that are facing urban centers, because we’re all struggling and have been struggling with public safety — but it has to be comprehensive in terms of how we approach our public safety challenges. So it’s not just policing, it is also the prevention and intervention strategies to work with children, youth and families, and there’s also putting in place the right constructs for our re-entry (from prison) population that are coming home to places like Camden, Trenton and Newark- making sure that we’re providing valuable resources for them to enter into the workforce.
One of the things that has happened with the police is not just that there is more of them and it’s not just that they’ve been kind of shuffled around manpower-wise. They’re also using new techniques. There is, as I understand it, a surveillance center that just has microphones out all over the city listening for gunshots. And that’s been effective, but the Atlantic Magazine labeled Camden a “surveillance city.” Are there any concerns about crossing the line civil liberties-wise? Or is the city still just maybe too far gone for that to even register as a concern?
Well you know, I wouldn’t label Camden as a “surveillance city.” But what I would say is that we’re utilizing technology as a force multiplier. To really put it in context, back in 2001 there was discussion of the “Eye in the Sky” camera policing program being implemented in Camden, and over time it just never got off the ground. I raised the question, “Why are we still waiting for the cameras to be installed?” And it was simply an additional funding source that we needed to tap into, of, $750,000. We were able to make that happen through the state and thereby procure the technology.
So not only do we have the cameras that the citizens have advocated for, we’ve been able to procure the shot-spotter technology that helps the police department to calibrate where shots have been fired, thereby allowing for a quicker response time. (We have) the automatic license plate readers, and again that was secured with a grant through the office of the AG here in the state of New Jersey. So you know, to the extent that it helps our police efforts here and our crime fighting efforts, it is welcomed, I can tell you, by our residents, and we’re looking to scale up more as funding becomes available.
The bond rating has increased and that’s a result of the city getting its act together from what was a mess a few years ago. From everything I’ve read has described it just as, there wasn’t much organization to the finances and there weren’t even necessarily all of the records that you should have in place. Describe a little bit about what the process was in getting that turned around.
Well I think it was, first step was securing a competent finance director that understood municipal budgeting, municipal finance, as well as the generally accepted accounting principles and applying that not only to our Division Department of Finance but also the professional development that was required with the staff. Much credit goes to our finance director, Glynn Jones, who is very much a fiscal conservative. And then you know, building upon his professional experience and expertise, was the technical assistance that we’ve received from the State Department of Community Affairs. So there’s an open line of communication, again, between the city and the state on how to implement best practices and how to be fiscally prudent and responsible.
As you’ve discussed, because you’ve got that bond rating increased, now you are in line to have the money to do the demolition.
There are some estimates that say you have as few as 3,000 and as many as 9,000 properties that could probably be in line for demolition if you’re doing everything. How do you target these, so that you’re getting the most bang for your buck, getting just these 600 off the streets?
So I think that the number of 9,000 properties needing to be taken down is way, way too high. So, from our estimate, we’re more like under 1,000 that need to be demolished as hazardous structures — and there’s a definition that our code and enforcement official will apply to whether or not a property is deemed hazardous, unsafe, and an imminent threat to the public safety — those properties get taken down. Then you have another pool of properties that, they’re abandoned because of foreclosure. And then there’s another pool of properties that are abandoned but could be rehabilitated for home ownership or for rental. So I think you have three segments to work with, so we’re going after the segment that definitely is a public safety hazard, to take those properties down, to create or to address blight, but also create opportunities for large-scale development to happen.
If you’re getting rid of blight at this level, if you’re doing demolition on this level, do you risk inadvertently sending the message that we’re still kind of in wind-down phase, rather than in growing phase, to the outside?
No, I think, you know one, the blight will stop the bleeding, you know, when you have homeowners that are in neighborhoods and they’re just sick of looking at properties that are falling down and nothing being done. And one of the reasons why we couldn’t do anything with it is because we weren’t in the financial position to address it, but now we are. Second, we have talked about making those areas vibrant until we can get a developer that’s interested in that area.
The New York Times even pointed out in its article about crime that the participation in the city’s Little League program is at new highs this year, with participants even coming over from Philadelphia to play. I read the Christian Science Monitorabout the growth of your community gardens. You’ve got a grocery store opening in town…
Two. Soon to be two.
What’s the next big step Camden needs to take to keep this going then?
You know, how do we sustain the success of what has begun in Camden beyond the life of the leader? And making sure that the new structure and systems that are operating now become so intrinsic and fundamental in the overall operations of local municipal government. So while we’re laying the foundation, we would like to see the next person come in and build on that successor, not unpack what we’ve done.
There have been stories written about how Camden’s maybe been the beneficiary of very targeted, focused laws to help the city specifically — laws that incentivise teachers to retire, businesses to locate here, supermarkets even to build here. Understanding that there’s always a give-and-take between states and municipalities, is that a permanent condition of helping Camden improve? Or is there a pathway to the city attaining a normal level of independence in the future?
I think in time there is a pathway to the city attaining normal independence. I think we’re more sooner there than not.The law that you first referenced is the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act. And so within that act there were two periods that were defined: One was the rehabilitation period, and that was a time at which a COO oversaw the day-to-day functions of the operations, which the mayor would normally oversee. That bill also came with $175 million that was overseen by the ERB, the Economic Recovery Board. But in retrospect, when you look at everything that the bill was supposed to accomplish, we probably accomplished maybe 70 percent of the bill’s required intent.
So coming into office in 2010, there was a shift in the period of rehabilitation to recovery. The recovery period is the period during which the mayor would retain full authority for the day-to-day operations. That’s the period that I’m now overseeing. And possibly at the end of that recovery period Camden may be ready for total independence. I think that would be contingent on us maintaining and stabilizing our finances and hopefully increasing our bond rating another grade level, the public safety aspect, seeing outcomes improve for education and workforce development, and so, you know, we’re going to track and monitor our progress.
Well that leaves me with a final question. What is Camden capable of being and becoming over the next 5-10 years? And how will you know when you’ve succeeded?
I know when I’ve succeeded — and when I say I, I mean “we” — again when we see Camden really come out of the top five of the most dangerous cities in America. Our people are not proud of that title — in fact, we mentioned it yesterday and it got a lot of “boos,” so they want to get out of that top five.
I know we’ve succeeded when we see poverty start to be addressed and the only way to overcome poverty, particularly inter-generational poverty, is education. We’ve become successful when this place is thriving again as an economic engine in South Jersey. We anticipate with the joint board of governors of Rowan and Rutgers University having a health sciences building constructed, we anticipate seeing more Renaissance schools constructed in the city of Camden, seeing housing that’s geared towards a middle-income market rate.
For me, I think the bottom line is really seeing the hope restored — and people having that spirit of “can-do,” “we can do this,” to help us to rebuild the city.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.