Easy revitalization

Some say that things are looking up in Camden.

Campbell’s Soup Company recently broke ground on a $90 million, brand-new Camden corporate headquarters, and the state, county, and city governments are sinking an additional $23 million into the area’s infrastructure.

The complex includes an 80,000 square-foot employee services building, as well as 200,000 square feet of office space, to be built on an adjacent parcel and redevelopment site. According to the office of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the project will retain nearly 1,200 jobs and “anchor the redevelopment of the surrounding area.”

But projects such as these represent minimal, baby-sized steps towards the revitalization of cities, when compared with the single easiest step that the state could take to jump start economic revitalization: end the residency exemption given to firemen, policemen, and teachers.

If these groups were subject to the residency ordinances of New Jersey’s cities, all of these relatively well-compensated workers – numbering in the thousands in each city – would fill in city neighborhoods and help these urban areas take the first steps back towards economic vibrancy and tax revenue self-sufficiency.

Until state legislators take such a drastic step and face off with the powerful unions of teachers, firemen, and police, Camden will remain the same. The nice part of the city, the waterfront, Cooper Street and near City Hall, will remain a bombed-out wasteland of empty hotels, empty storefronts, and empty high-rises – just general emptiness, all because no one lives there.

Even the better-off cities of Newark and Trenton have similar traits. Both have downtowns that adopt the same emptiness once the buzz and din of worker activity stops at the end of the day, and thousands of vehicles flee the cities for the suburbs.

What’s missing is the kind of stable, middle-class population that brings economic activity, property ownership, and a good tax base. These things fled to the suburbs over the last five decades, and with them went the days of prosperity, at least for the vast majority of New Jersey’s cities.

The residency-exempt Civil Service positions could help bring prosperity back. Sure, the unions will kick and scream, but that can be reduced through the establishment of a grandfather clause for current residency-exempt firemen, police, and teachers.

Only new personnel, hired after a certain effective date, should become subject to residency.

To address the certain lack of candidates that may emerge when some downtrodden places like Camden start searching for employees, the state should up the ante, and provide extra salary or compensation to whomever is willing to take the job.

Cities can engage in similar activities, like offering vacant homes or other incentives to residency-required employees.

It may seem excessive to spend extra money to fund such incentives, but the current status of these cities means that nearly all of their municipal and school dollars come from the state, so revitalization through removing residency exemptions becomes a more lucrative tactic.

It is truly a good first step towards bringing cities back from the abyss.

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