It’s impossible to talk about revitalization in Camden without talking to George Norcross III. Widely considered to be the most powerful unelected individual in New Jersey, he has been at the forefront of initiatives to improve public safety, education and corporate partnerships in the city.
Norcross, who chairs the Camden-based Cooper University Health System and the local arm of the Texas-based MD Anderson Cancer Center, worked closely with Camden County officials in 2013 to form the Camden County Police Department. His family foundation has contributed to charter and renaissance schools in the city, one of which bears his father’s name. And he was the most vocal private-sector champion of the state’s 2013 Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), which carved out billions of dollars in tax incentives designed to attract corporations and developers to New Jersey’s struggling cities.
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But while Norcross considers himself Camden’s “biggest cheerleader,” he is also a divisive figure. Critics say Norcross wields excessive influence over state politics and has driven programs that have increased his substantial wealth. According to a 2019 investigative piece by public broadcaster WNYC and the nonprofit ProPublica, at least $1.1 billion of the $1.6 billion in tax subsidies secured by Camden through the EOA went to businesses closely associated with Norcross, including his insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, and its partners, NFI LP and the Michaels Organization. (Conner Strong and NFI’s applications were approved in 2020.) Tax breaks were also awarded to entities in which Norcross is a trustee, such as Holtec, and clients of the law firm owned by his brother Phillip, including Subaru and the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team.
In a video conference call, Norcross spoke with New Jersey Monthly about his commitment to Camden, his response to his critics and his vision for the future of the city. (The text has been edited for length and clarity.)
First, why Camden?
Camden is the city I was born in. My father’s professional career was largely in Camden. He served on the board of trustees for Cooper Health System for many, many years. My childhood memories were of Camden and Pennsauken, where I grew up. I was born in 1956, and Camden was a place of great significance well into the 1960s. It has always been an important part of my life.
How would you characterize Camden today?
We use the phrase Camden Rising. That was something that started when Barack Obama visited the city [in 2015], and people started to recognize the importance of what was going on in public safety and public education.
It used to be that you could buy drugs, buy sex and get murdered on the same block. And why the state of New Jersey was not focusing on public safety and public education was beyond me.
In my opinion, there were completely misguided efforts. The state spent $40 million building one of the most successful outdoor amphitheaters in the country [the BB&T Pavilion]. But what did that do for the neighborhoods? What did that do for the community? What did it do for public safety and public education? I would say nothing. The city was going to go nowhere fast.
You worked to bring a number of large corporations to Camden. What do you say to critics who contend that the presence of those corporations hasn’t helped improve quality of life in Camden?
I think that opinion, with all due respect, is misguided. A poll was done this summer [by New York-based polling firm, Global Strategy Group]. Seventy percent of households in the city of Camden have seen vast improvement in their school system. And just look at the numbers on citywide crime. Compare 2012 to 2020. The murder rate is down 80 percent. This is nothing short of remarkable.
The people of Camden are no different than the people of Cherry Hill or Collingswood or elsewhere. They want the same things. Great schools, safe neighborhoods—but they have been deprived of it for decades. And that’s because people over the past few decades have been against everything and for nothing. They like to get on a soapbox and criticize things, but rarely is there an effort to get together.
Undoubtedly, there are people who might think there’s a better way, or are unhappy or, candidly, are political opponents or gadflies. But what we’ve done in recent years is embraced everybody. You want to play a part in making it better? Join with us.
In an apparent response to the WNYC/ProPublica piece, sources have told me that you are personally profiting off the ills of the city. What do you say to those critics?
The piece was a misguided report littered with inaccuracies and innuendos that were false.
I am Camden’s greatest cheerleader. Who do you think was out there begging, trying to sell companies on the idea of moving to America’s most dangerous and poorest city? It was me. The remarks I get today, more often than not, are from people who are elderly, who were born and raised in Camden, who knew my father or my mother, and they tell us how excited they are to see change finally taking place.
As to the tax incentives, they come at the end of 15 years. And in most cases, you pay 39 percent income taxes on those incentives. When you boil down what the tax incentives are really worth after income tax, the 15-year period when the money’s been at stake, you’re really getting about 35 cents on the dollar.
The problem is that people like ProPublica had a conclusion, and they wrote their story to meet their conclusion. They didn’t do their research, they refused to review research, because they wanted to write a story implying that the treasury of New Jersey wrote [checks] to companies like Holtec, which was not even remotely close to reality or the truth.
But when people make those kinds of assertions in the environment we’re in, people get angry and hostile, and it’s difficult to explain it to them. American Water, the largest publicly traded water company in America, could have gone anywhere they wanted to in America. Holtec probably could have gone anywhere in the world. The Philadelphia 76ers—do you know how much guts it took to move to New Jersey when you’re called the Philadelphia 76ers? Subaru could have easily gone to Indiana, where they have a big manufacturing facility.
People had choices. My own corporate headquarters was in Cherry Hill and Center City Philadelphia. I had 150 people working in Center City. I could have easily consolidated in Center City.
I can tell you, [these companies] didn’t move here because of tax credits. They moved here because they wanted to be part of what was going on. And no doubt an incentive was needed to get companies to come to Camden. Who the hell is coming to America’s most dangerous and poorest city unless there was an opportunity to do something?
In January 2019, Governor Phil Murphy formed the EDA Task Force to investigate perceived abuses of state tax incentives. Some believe you were the target. How did that affect your relationship with the governor?
If you read the task force report, you’ll find that they said the Connor Strong application, even if applied under a different formula, met the criteria by miles. And that’s because I moved 150 people from out of state to New Jersey. Very few did that. American Water moved from Voorhees. Subaru moved from Cherry Hill. I moved a huge staff [from Philadelphia]. Cooper Hospital moved almost 1,000 people from the suburbs. And during the pandemic, Cooper was one of three key leadership hospitals in the state. We were the southern regional hospital leader. And that was organized by the governor. We continue working to this day hand-in-hand for regional assistance with the pandemic.
How would you characterize your relationship with Murphy today?
It feels fine. During his campaign, he visited Camden and toured the city extensively. The governor realizes the successes in Camden are real. I believe he would say that.
I think it’s also fair to say that every one of these companies that moved to Camden held up their end of the bargain. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars—into the billions collectively—and they brought the jobs to Camden they promised. My company is 25 percent over what I promised I’d bring. Cooper has quadrupled what it promised to bring. Things are all on the upswing, and our relationship with the governor is excellent.
Some critics fear Camden Rising initiatives will lead to gentrification and a loss of the city’s identity. Are such fears justified?
Real estate in most parts of the city has become very expensive. Those I know who live in the city are ecstatic that they’ve recovered the value of what they put into their homes. The big difference between what we’ve done and what others have done is that we’ve done this from the neighborhood perspective, so the neighborhoods are the priority at the moment. Not Center City or downtown.
When you’re working in the neighborhoods like we are, block by block by block, making sure that clean water is in place, that parents have a school that’s safe and that they’re proud of, making sure you have a great youth athletic program year round, all these things matter. We want to give the people who live here, who have gone through this, a helping hand, and hope they remain as great citizens of this city. There’s enthusiasm here. The arrow is pointing up.Click here to leave a comment