CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — American Water hopes to help drive the current of Camden's rising tide.
Its new, 220,000-square-foot corporate headquarters, now under construction along the Delaware River on Camden's waterfront, is slated for completion in September, with the first of 600 to 700 employees moving to the city from its current home in Voorhees.
But, say Joe Szafran and H. Jeremy "Yimi" Kierman, the company wants to do more than plant itself in the city, another corporate behemoth reaping millions in tax incentives to move to Camden.
"We've been serving Camden for more than 120 years," Szafran said. "And we want to be here another 100 years or more. This is more than putting a stake in the ground; we want to continue to be a part of this community." "One of the key factors (in choosing Camden) was that we wanted to be in an area that we service," Kierman said. Consolidating American Water's four corporate hubs into one was another factor.
"But the big one was the talent," Kierman added. Motioning to Tyler Stokes, a lifelong Camden resident and an administrative assistant for contractors working on the site, he noted that young employees prefer amenities a city like Camden can offer: walkability, access to public transportation, and a feeling of being in the center of things.
"There's not really a much better place to broadcast who we are than this building, overlooking Philadelphia. ... We really wanted to be in a place where we could be visible, and where future talent would want to come to work."
Visibility isn't likely to be a problem for American Water, at least in a physical sense. The building rests right along the Delaware, a sprawling structure designed by the renowned Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
The view across the river, for years a one-way proposition as Philadelphia's skyline grew and evolved, is beginning to become a bit more reciprocal: The Camden Tower, an office complex that will house insurance brokers Conner Strong & Buckelew, logistics provider NFI and developer The Michaels Organization is under construction on River Drive and Market Street.
More development is planned, including a hotel, apartments and other office space, adding to a view that already includes Adventure Aquarium's dome, the Delaware River Port Authority's One Port Center, the 76ers' logo and the Battleship New Jersey.And American Water's presence in Camden will be clear, thanks to 14-foot-high letters spelling out its name atop its building, lit in colors that will coordinate with those on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Camden City Hall, or in observance of holidays or causes, like pink for breast cancer awareness.
Wide, sloping staircases installed by Camden's Central Metals encourage employees to walk and talk. Glass-enclosed offices are uniform in size and ring the perimeter so the views can be shared by all, a feature the company hopes will foster a sense of everyone being equal.
Inside, American Water will showcase its namesake with two massive water walls on either side of its Water Street entrance. A partial view of the Delaware River and Philadelphia skyline is preserved, with glass windows offering sight lines from Cooper Street out to a the riverfront walkway and public park. "That might be my favorite thing about this building," said Stokes, who lives downtown and is studying business at Rutgers-Camden.
An innovation and learning center in the lobby will introduce visitors — including groups of area children from schools and camps — to the process of bringing water to homes, businesses and public places, teaching them the science behind the spigot. "We want kids to walk out of here thinking it would be cool to be an engineer or a scientist," Kierman said. "And we want to start them young."
Another big incentive for the move, like that of many companies moving to Camden, is a generous package of state tax credits and other incentives. The state Economic Development Authority in 2015 awarded $164 million in tax credits to help finance American Water's move to Camden.
Asked how American Water employees reacted to the move from an affluent suburb to a city still trying to find its way toward rebirth, Kierman acknowledged that "change is always difficult." "We want this to be a place where people can feel comfortable," he said. To that end, the company hosted picnics at Campbell's Field, handing out welcome packets with information about the small businesses and restaurants nearby, and encouraging employees to use the PATCO Hi-Speedline or NJ Transit Riverline so they can walk through the downtown area and see what it has to offer.
In April, American Water, Conner Strong, NFI and The Michaels Organization held a supplier fair, inviting 100 Camden-based small businesses, such as janitorial companies, contractors and others, to show what they could offer.
The company has spread more than $4 million in charitable spending around the city as well, Kierman said, and plans to spend more, focusing in particular on STEM education for children.
Its contractors, hired by developer Liberty Property Trust, have made a point of hiring Camden residents, he noted. More than 50 residents have been employed so far on the project, including craft workers, office personnel and security staffers.
Stokes is one of them, and she's clearly proud of her place in all of this. Surveying the riverside park, the Philadelphia skyline, the Ben Franklin Bridge and North Camden from the rooftop deck that eventually will become a terrace and green roof, she imagined watching the fireworks and seeing concerts on the waterfront with the American Water sign among the lights making Camden's own evolving cityscape.
"There's a sense of pride about this," she said. "You know this is Camden. It gives people that feeling of, 'We're here.”