Coming Together

Coming Together

Although the COVID-19 pandemic had all the makings to stall Camden’s progress in establishing itself as an economic competitor in the Philadelphia region, it was no match for the resolve of the organizations and the people that have dedicated themselves to this mission.

 

 

Long-awaited projects, including the Hilton Garden Inn, which opened in December 2020, and the multi-million dollar Camden High School, didn’t skip a beat, and more good news is on the horizon for the city, says Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr.
“The newest project approved by the Land Use Board is the development of a last-mile warehousing facility on Admiral Wilson Boulevard,” Cappelli says of the $20 million, 145,390-square-foot distribution center from Matrix Development Group. “Once built, it will create over 200 permanent jobs which the residents of Camden will be eligible for. It’s a win-win for the city.”
Eyes have been on the Walter Rand Transportation Center for years, and many are happy to have Gov. Phil Murphy’s official funding commitment of at least $250 million for renovations and expansions. “We can now begin creating a plan for the site,” Cappelli says. “It’s a long-term proposition but I’m optimistic that the process has started and puts us closer to a world-class transportation center in Camden city.”
Yet, the past year has still been dominated by the pandemic, and top of mind for so many has been delivering crucial health care services to residents of Camden. Cappelli says providers such as Cooper Health and Rutgers School of Nursing have been key partners in both testing and vaccinations for residents.
Anthony Minniti, who co-owns 90-year-old Bell Pharmacy with his sister Marian Morton, says his independent pharmacy is filling some gaps in vaccine distribution in the city.
“It’s a paradox in Camden where there are world-class medical facilities driving the renaissance in the city, but much of it remains difficult to access for true Camden residents. … They are competing with people from across the region who are coming here for resources as it relates to COVID-19, including the vaccine,” Minniti says.
Bell Pharmacy, which is located in the Parkside neighborhood, made a commitment to obtain vaccines and ensure that they would first be made available to Camden residents. Before vaccines were in hand, there was also an important educational aspect to consider. “In communities of color there is vaccine hesitancy, and their fears and experiences are legitimate. It took a lot of one-on-one conversations, but I think there’s a certain level of trust that comes from being part of this community for 90 years,” he says. “They are looking to us on whether or not they go forward with it. That’s not something they’ll get from a corporate rep from a chain.”
It wasn’t just health care needs, but everyday essentials that residents required, and organizations worked hard to respond. Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey (LSMNJ) opened a food pantry in fall 2019 with the goal of providing a healthy food source for residents—a location that also proved significant when the pandemic hit. 
Craig Roscoe, LSMNJ social worker and program manager, says demand remained steady at the onset of the pandemic, with an uptick in need for toilet paper and hand soap. The food pantry—which also provides baby items, cleaning supplies and hygiene products—is just one more resource, in addition to social services, maintenance and health and financial workshops offered by LSMNJ, and helps relieve the burden on residents who sometimes have to choose between paying bills or putting food on the table.
“They have many obstacles that they are confronted with,” Roscoe says. “Our goal is to provide our residents with services that not only meet their needs but go that extra step. Knowing that they can always come and get fresh food and toiletries takes one less thing off their plate. … We are all responsible for our fellow neighbors despite the difference in zip code. With support of the community, we can continue to not only grow the pantry in Camden but also open other food pantries throughout other LSM properties.”
Services to keep kids engaged in safe activities outside of school have been important as well. Last year, PS&S, an architecture and engineering firm, completed its upgrades of the Jackie Robinson Community Center and Camden City Community Service Center offices.  
“The gymnasium, locker rooms and mechanical systems in the Jackie Robinson Community Center were desperately in need of renovation, accessibility upgrades and mechanical improvements to serve the community safely and appropriately,” says Marge Della Vecchia, vice president. “This community center is an important and valued neighborhood amenity, used year-round by all ages for basketball, boxing, training and swimming in the summer.”
The PS&S team designed the gymnasium to accommodate maximum playing area, best lighting, air circulation and ensure flexibility for a variety of uses. Locker rooms were brought up to code and made handicap accessible and safe. “The recreation and human services offices were urgently in need of accessibility upgrades, windows and finish upgrades to accommodate the heavy use of the facility. Within the recreation center, the Philadelphia Sixers Youth Foundation opened a new Learn and Play Center, complete with new computer lab, workstations and related equipment,” she continues.
The company also created a new umbrella organization, PS&S CARES, for its volunteer efforts. It has redoubled its efforts to address diversity, inclusion and equity within the company and through company-wide volunteer participation and programs. 
Long-term, the partnership between Camden’s businesses and its residents will prove to be the fundamental component of their shared success. For example, weeks before the pandemic hit, the South Jersey Port Corporation had just expanded its executive team, including the addition of Jonathan Atwood, chief of staff and external affairs. Some initiatives were complicated by the pandemic, but one priority it forged ahead on was being a good neighbor to Camden residents. “We are located right on the waterfront and on the other side of our warehouses are homes, so we have tried to be cognizant of the fact that we’re in the middle of a neighborhood,” Atwood says. 
The port has taken steps to reduce noise and environmental pollution. It was awarded two grants by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection toward the purchase of electric cargo handling equipment, including 22 electric forklifts and one electric yard hostler. “That’s 23 pieces that previously ran on diesel and will greatly reduce or work to reduce the environmental impact in the immediate vicinity of the port. … We have actively been trying to cut down on idling. We don’t want trucks idling for three hours until they are loaded, which only creates air pollution and noise in the community,” Atwood continues.
One of the biggest ways the port can make an impact on the surrounding community is with jobs. “We’re able to provide good union, family-sustaining jobs, and as much as we can, we hire directly from the city of Camden. We work with Camden Works and Cooper’s Ferry Partnership to obtain applicants from the city,” he says, especially as investments in offshore wind energy grow and spur job creation. “As things reopen, I’m looking forward to doing more community outreach and opening the dialogue with residents.”

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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 11, Issue 4 (April 2021).

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Author: Liz Hunter

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