George Norcross on Christie, corporate tax breaks, 'Camden rising'

By Phaedra Trethan, March 6, 2019

CAMDEN — Cooper's Ferry's Partnership changed the venue for its biggest fundraiser, usually held at the Adventure Aquarium, but that wasn't the only change for its annual meeting.

Camden's mayor has typically been the event's keynote speaker. But this year, though Mayor Frank Moran made remarks, the main speaker was George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey Democratic power broker, Cooper University Hospital chairman and insurance executive.

Norcross had a lot to say, speaking for nearly 40 minutes about Camden's ongoing revitalization efforts, the man he said "saved the city," failed attempts to revive the Waterfront, renaissance schools and the New Jersey Education Association and mandatory minimum wages.

Cooper's Ferry, the community development corporation that has spearheaded much of the change that's marked the last three decades in Camden, hosted its event at the BB&T Pavilion, with about 500 people packed into the concert venue's Walt Whitman lobby. 

Introduced by Moran as "a businessman, a health care visionary, a philanthropist and one of Camden's strongest advocates," Norcross repaid the compliment by singling out Moran, his predecessor Dana Redd and the late Melvin "Randy" Primas as "extraordinary public servants."

"We are where we are today because of your leadership," Norcross said.

But Norcross, for decades the driving force behind South Jersey's Democratic party, saved his highest praise for a Republican: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

"There is no person more responsible for what's going on (in Camden) than Gov. Christie," said Norcross. "He saved this city."

What he called Camden's "extraordinary renaissance" began with "the fundamentals of rebuilding a city" by reclaiming its streets — once widely considered the most dangerous in the country — and by reforming its schools.

"No company will put private capital in a company that's not safe," he noted. Civic engagement with religious, nonprofit and community leaders, he said, helped make the most recent revitalization efforts work where past ones had failed.

As chairman of Cooper University Hospital, Norcross said, he learned that it was important to "go out into the neighborhoods, talk to the people who live there, ask them what their thoughts were, engage them in the process, and that paid enormous dividends, not only for Cooper but for the community as a whole."

Norcross, who is moving his insurance firm, Conner Strong & Buckelew to a new office tower on the Camden Waterfront, said he and other business leaders are "betting the ranch" on Camden.

"When people ask me, 'Is Camden's renaissance real?'," he said, "it's a resounding 'Yes.'"

Camden was helped by a coalition of unlikely partners, he recalled. 

"People who previously argued and were against many things and for very little, decided to come together to figure out how schools could become better," he said.

The idea of transforming Camden's schools, he said, began with his brother Donald Norcross, who now represents New Jersey's First Congressional District, including Camden, in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Christie embraced the younger Norcross' idea of renaissance schools, which are publicly funded, privately run, and are required to accept students from a traditional neighborhood catchment area. 

The elder Norcross asked Christie about partnering with the New Jersey Education Association, with whom the governor had frequently and publicly clashed, to run a school in Camden. Christie, Norcross said, agreed, and Norcross approached the union.

"Much to my amazement, they declined," he said. "Regretfully, they declined, and have opposed our progress ever since."

Norcross slammed media characterizations of tax incentives that have helped draw companies including Holtec International, American Water, Subaru and his own insurance firm to Camden.

The negative coverage stemmed from a January audit by the New Jersey State Comptroller's Office that found a lack of accountability and oversight to ensure companies were creating the jobs required to receive the incentives.

Gov. Phil Murphy had said that “the comptroller’s report confirms some of our worst suspicions, that billions of dollars’ worth of state tax incentives were awarded by the Christie administration with little regard to oversight or transparency and even less regard for making sure we actually got a return on the taxpayers’ investment."

Norcross disputed that legislation that created the incentives failed to ensure accountability.

Companies invest millions to build in Camden and other struggling cities, then have to wait at least a year for their first tax incentives to kick in, and are still required to pay federal income taxes, and, as they sell many of those tax credits at steep discounts to other corporations, meaning many of them have to wait nearly two decades to realize the tax incentives' full benefit.

The state can "claw back" incentives from companies that fail to create the jobs they promise, Norcross said. In January, Gov. Murphy indicated he was not sure the state had the legal authority to do so, according to

"What folks think when they read most media reports is that the state stood up and wrote a check for $300 million bucks and said, 'Happy days are here again,'" Norcross said Tuesday. "Well, that's not the case. Every one of these companies ... has had to put up the entire amount of money upon their construction and their occupancy, and they're all betting on the City of Camden."

The Democrat took a bipartisan shot at state policymakers, saying that until the Christie administration, the approach was "let's build things and hope that facilitates something that takes place," with state-financed projects like the aquarium and the recently-demolished Campbell's Field.

"I love the aquarium and I think it's a great place," he said. "But when you have people a block away buying drugs and buying sex and getting killed, that doesn't make a lot of sense to be investing $150 million in a fish tank.

"What did that do for the neighborhood?" he asked. "What did that do to make a family's quality of life better?"

Norcross also touted Cooper's institution of a $15 minimum hourly wage for all its employees in November. 

"It is unacceptable that people cannot get paid a minimum livable wage in this country, and there are plenty of people in my business world that complain about it, who think we shouldn't be legislating minimum wages," Norcross said. 

"I tell them you're wrong, because if the underbelly of this country is not brought up, you're going to have a gap between the haves and the have-nots that's so significant, there's going to be a revolution."

Noting Cooper's commitment to hiring city residents, and its partnership with Hopeworks N Camden to teach medical coding and hire its graduates, Norcross called on others to do more to help those who need it.

"Everybody in this room got a shot somewhere in life. ... Every one of us, someone helped us. Someone gave us a shot.

"It's up to us to be part of that process, providing a helping hand to people and leading by example."

Camden, too, has needed help, much of which has come from the state. 

That needs to end, Norcross acknowledged, and it will, he promised.

"Good people can disagree on public policy," he said, "but it is incumbent upon us to try to end the dependence of this city on the State of New Jersey."

Billions have been spent on Camden's operating budget and its educational system, he added, but the groundwork has been laid for the city to have a sustainable, strong tax base of businesses and residents.

"I think we're on the way now, within a decade or so, of having the city rely on little or no reliance on a state budget to subsidize its operations, and that has to be our goal."

Phaedra Trethan: @CP_Phaedra; 856-486-2417;