Report highlights health, economic, educational gains in Camden

By Phaedra Trethan, January 15, 2019

A Philadelphia-based consulting firm specializing in economic development and public policy says progress in several key indicators of civic well-being is evident in Camden since 2011.

"Camden is seeing marked improvements in the economic, health, educational and social well-being of its residents for the first time in half a century," concluded the report, titled "The Positive Impacts of in Investments in Camden, NJ, on Social Determinants of Health."

The report, compiled by EConsult Solutions Inc., was presented to the Rowan University-Rutgers Camden Board of Governors on Tuesday.

"This is a magnificent case study as to how municipal revitalization should happen," said former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, who represented Camden in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 until 1990. 

Read the full report at the end of this article.

Florio credited the city's ongoing revitalization to "enlightened leadership" and collaboration among public and private sector entities, as well as nonprofits and community stakeholders.

"This proves that you can have good public policy if you have people who are engaged and informed," he added. 

The report focuses on elements including public safety, education (K-12 and higher education), healthcare, neighborhood quality of life and economic development.

"After 50 years of social and economic decline, Camden is experiencing a renaissance," the report says. "The foundation of this turnaround is the partnerships and commitment between state and local governmental entities, business leaders and community stakeholders to develop and implement a holistic strategy focused on improving the city's fundamental systems."

Public safety, said Florio, was the starting point. "Without that, you won't have anything," the former governor noted.

The city's police department was dissolved and replaced in 2013 with a new, Camden County-run department. The new force, led by Chief J. Scott Thomson, placed an emphasis on community policing that has led to improved relationships with city residents and a decrease in crime, the report says.

"Camden’s small, low income tax base made it difficult for the city to invest in its people, institutions and infrastructure," the report notes in explaining how the decline was precipitated. "This created a negative reinforcing cycle of decline. As a result, Camden struggled to address high crime rates, poorly performing public schools, and declines in its housing stock and transportation infrastructure.

"Coupled with a state tax code that advantaged suburban communities, Camden faced major challenges across all social determinants of health."

A renewed focus on education, along with the proliferation of charter and renaissance schools, have fostered improvements in standardized test scores, graduation rates and school attendance, the report also says.

"Public safety, education, and neighborhood infrastructure are driving outside investments and interest in Camden," it says. "Private investments are building on foundational improvements driven by the public sector."

Camden "took on these challenges issue by issue," Florio recalled. Mayor Dana Redd, then-Council President (now Redd's successor as mayor) Frank Moran and county leaders had to make difficult choices that were unpopular at the time, such as transitioning to the county-run police department.

"But the message (to other leaders) is that if you do something that's right, even if it's not immediately popular, it will prove to be right in the end," Florio said.

Government, nonprofit and business leaders came together, using a "rational thought process, collaborating and looking for commonality," he added.

The report includes some words of caution, and Florio, when asked what remains to complete Camden's turnaround, pointed to greater job creation and opportunities for the city's residents. 

"Since 2011, Camden has been on a steady climb out of its crisis," the report says. 

"While much progress has been made in improving the fundamental elements of the city that bring stability, the growth trajectory of Camden is fragile and is very much dependent on the continuation of state investment, private capital and other nonmonetary efforts to achieve its true potential."

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