Around 1984, under the Mayor Primas administration in Camden, the state decided to build a dedicated office building. One of the unions involved in the project filed a lawsuit in an attempt to waive required training and employment of Camden residents.
The argument? Camden residents were "uneducable."
The court was not amused, the requirements were kept in place, and the union had to hire and train local residents, who subsequently earned membership.
Krishna Singh, founder and CEO of Holtec International, could have learned a lesson from this 34-year-old incident. Last week, he was the object of much controversy after comments about the Camden workforce.
"They don't show up to work," Singh was quoted as saying to ROI-NJ. "They can't stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven't done it, and they didn't see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it's difficult."
The statement was widely condemned by city officials and activists, though Singh later said that his comments were taken out of context.
Singh's comments, even when clarified, touched a nerve with regard to the reinvestment and growth opportunity that exists by developing a robust workforce. It's important that Singh see the City of Camden as a viable partner and not just a $260 million tax break.
There's a reason tax incentives exists for cities like Camden. How this tax break inures to the political and public benefit of Holtec depends on Singh's respect for the city he now calls his business home.
The covenants of a tax benefit should compel a recipient to develop and implement economic and workforce development programs with the political and social stakeholders in the city. The same political will that enabled Holtec's award of the tax break should require the reinvestment of that capital to change the culture of engagement with Camden and its residents. This type of commitment isn't grounded in the hope of gentrification, but a belief and respect for the humanity of Camden and the promise of a viable partnership.
Camden doesn't need boutique solutions. It needs jobs with living wages and affordable housing that will create the tax base to improve the city and school district. Systemic change is needed that only a committed corporate partner can initiate and do the work that needs to be done.
A corporate tax break in a distressed market must be more than real estate and tax relief. It must require a commitment to reimagine what can be, and work to make it happen. If that vision isn't there, then Holtec is just one more white collar crime scene injuring the city and the taxpayers of New Jersey.