As officials prepared to celebrate the opening of Subaru's new corporate headquarters in Camden on Friday — the city's latest catch, bolstered by generous state tax incentives — Mary Ann Rakus was pining for a different type of development along the Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
"It would be nice to have a WaWa," said Rakus, the vice president of Bush Refrigeration, a commercial refrigeration company that has been on the north side of the boulevard in Camden for 34 years. Its 22 employees bring in a personal trainer for fitness needs and run errands in Cherry Hill.
"Where we're at, really, there is nothing to get at quick," Rakus said.
The seedy subject of a $45 million cleanup effort 18 years ago, now a spartan stretch of gas stations mingled with a bus lot, liquor stores, vacant buildings and a strip of parkland, this section of Route 30 between the Ben Franklin Bridge in Camden and neighboring Pennsauken has been a challenging sell to some businesses — like a hoped-for ShopRite that never came to pass.
"It takes a special company that's going to want to move to a site that's right off the highway, which is essentially one way, heading toward a bridge," Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash said, of the westbound commercial section of highway.
He and others hope that Subaru will help change that. The company's new five-story, 250,000 square-foot headquarters sits off the south side of the Admiral Wilson Boulevard, near Campbell's and Cooper Hospital in an area developers envision as a "pedestrian-friendly urban campus" — complete with a nine-acre park, light-rail and PATCO access, farmers markets, art installations, and performance spaces.
"People's perception of Camden starts at Admiral Wilson Boulevard. You want to create a perception" of what Camden is now — "that there's significant revitalization," Nash said. "It's tough to create that perception with boarded-up buildings."
Spurred by the opening in 1926 of what would later be dubbed the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Admiral Wilson Boulevard was once imagined as a tree-lined parkway that would showcase Camden.
But it quickly became a commercial hotspot for businesses seeking to "appeal to the driving consumer" — including the world's first drive-in movie theater and a "whoopee coaster," a type of roller coaster for cars, according to Rutgers University-Camden librarian Bart Everts.
By the 1970s, the boulevard began an evolution toward a different kind of business. Go-go clubs and hourly rate motels began to dominate — a trend enhanced by a 1977 city ordinance restricting businesses related to "prurient interests" to the boulevard, according to Everts. For years, prostitutes walked along the roadway, looking for work — even in daylight — and congregated under a bridge in between trips to the nearby hotel.
Ahead of the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the state decided the boulevard needed to shed its sleazy image. Buildings along the south side of the highway were razed to put on a better face for visitors along a road that serves as the gateway to Camden for thousands of motorists daily.
The state also tackled the road's flooding problems, which once routinely forced its closure after a soaking rain, completing a $7.8 million project to improve drainage in 2010.
Still, amenities are lacking. After ringing up a customer Wednesday at Carool's Discount Liquor — where posters outside advertise prices for single cans of Tecate and Bud Ice — Maria Cintron said that while the demolition improved the highway, she wished for more stores or a shopping center. "Anything we can get by that's close," said Cintron, who lives in Camden.
Commuters suggested that the boulevard could still use sprucing up. "I would like to see some beautification," said Randy Pesikey, a Subaru dealership employee who drives from Delaware to Cherry Hill. He sometimes stops at the Speedway on the south side to grab food.
"I've never been here after dark," Pesikey said. "I've been told I shouldn't."
Camden Mayor Frank Moran said he was bullish on the boulevard's future. With Subaru opening, "that will be the anchor for what's to come on Admiral Wilson Boulevard," he said. The city is promoting several tracts along the north side and will talk with Brandywine Realty Trust, the developer of the Subaru site, "to look at land along the boulevard," Moran said.
"It's just a great corridor," Moran said.
The city has enjoyed a powerful tool to lure businesses to Camden recently: tax incentives.
Subaru was approved for $118 million in incentives by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority in 2014 to move from Cherry Hill and build the headquarters that will open Friday. The incentives were the product of a 2013 law to spur economic activity and prevent businesses from leaving the state, with particular bonuses for businesses moving to Camden. Other big projects in the city to net credits include Holtec — granted $260 million by the state in incentives to move to the Camden waterfront from Evesham — and American Water Works Co., promised $164 million to move from Voorhees.
In seeking the tax credits, Subaru pledged to relocate 500 employees and create 100 new jobs. The credits, spread over 10 years, are conditional on the company's meeting those commitments and staying in Camden for at least 15 years.
The law also affords Subaru a 20-year tax abatement, allowing the company to forgo paying real estate taxes for the first 10 years, and paying a portion of the tax owed for the next 10.
The company declined to comment on its property taxes. Throughout Camden, 55 percent of property value is tax-exempt, compared with 14 percent in the rest of Camden County, according to the New Jersey Treasury Department.
Camden's median household income is $26,214. More than one in three Camden residents lives in poverty, according to census data.
More than 550 Subaru employees will be relocated from four sites onto the new campus, though the headquarters has room for 900 employees, spokeswoman Diane Anton said. A not-yet-complete, 107,000-square-feet service training facility will hold 70 more employees. A "limited number of vehicles" will also be stored on site, she said.
While some workers have already moved in to the headquarters, others will do so over the next several weeks, finishing by the end of May, Anton said.
Amenities at the new headquarters — which is expected to be LEED-certified — include a full-service cafeteria, ATM machine, a dry cleaner and a "grab-and-go" food shop, Anton said.
Brandywine is marketing the development — which can accommodate 1.2 to 1.8 million more square feet on six additional sites — "regionally and in the Acela corridor from NYC to DC," Berson said.
Other changes are coming to Admiral Wilson. The Gateway Park along the south side of the boulevard is expected to open in July, according to county officials. "We want to make sure that park is in a condition that employees and residents can use," Nash said.
And new companies slated to move to or just off the north side of the boulevard — also lured by tax incentives — include Benjamin Foods, a Hatboro, Pa.-based wholesale food distributor, and ResinTech, a water treatment company relocating factories from West Berlin; Bristol, Pa.; and Maryland.