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After more than seven years, the state takeover of Camden, New Jersey has ended. State lawmakers directed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to New Jerseys poorest city. But the critics say little of that money found its way to the citys neighborhoods, as Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: The state takeover was supposed to be a new start for Camden. After decades of corruption in City Hall, state lawmakers installed their own chief operating officer to run Camden. They set aside $175 million in special state aid. Many residents hoped the money would repair crumbling streets and sewers, improve schools, and put more cops on the beat, but thats not exactly how it worked out.
Ms. ROSA RAMIREZ(ph): The neighborhoods did not get a fair share. That I have to say because I live in Camden and my neighborhood looks just as it did seven years ago.
ROSE: Rosa Ramirez lives in East Camden, a neighborhood of weathered row houses and empty lots. Ramirez sat on a board that helped distribute money from the state takeover. She found it frustrating that the biggest institutions in town, including Campbell's Soup and Cooper University Hospital, seemed to get the most.
Ms. RAMIREZ: When I came to the board, I came to the board with the idea that I was going to represent the people of this city. Okay? Thats what I thought. Well, it doesnt work that way. They had to take care of the colleges, the hospitals, the waterfront, okay, and thats (unintelligible).
ROSE: Its about three miles from Rosa Ramirezs neighborhood to the most visible result of the state takeover. Camdens Adventure Aquarium draws roughly a million visitors a year here to the Delaware River waterfront just across from Philadelphia. The $25 million project is one of several big ticket items financed with the states money.
Mr. JOE ROBERTS (Former Speaker, New Jersey Assembly): With $175 million that was to be spent, was the money spent wisely? Were there results for the money that was spent? The answer has to be yes to all of them.
ROSE: Joe Roberts is a former speaker of the New Jersey assembly who helped to write the takeover legislation eight years ago. He doesnt apologize for the way the money was spent.
Mr. ROBERTS: If Camden is going to have any chance of survival long term, we have to grow the tax base. And thats only going to occur by building up the downtown and creating an environment where companies can come in and invest in the cities.
ROSE: But local businesses say they never had much chance to compete for the money.
(Soundbite of telephone)
Ms. CORRINE BRADLEY POWERS(ph): Hello (unintelligible)
ROSE: Corrine Bradley Powers runs a soul food restaurant in Camden. She is well known in the neighborhood for hiring people that no one else will.
Ms. BRADLEY POWERS (Restaurant Owner): Everybody knows thats what Im doing. My business has been here for 20 years and they know me for dealing with kids and even grown-ups that the unhirables, you know, people that - incarcerated and just giving people a chance, and this is what I was trying to do.
ROSE: Bradley Powers applied for a grant to open a culinary school in a vacant storefront next to her restaurant but she was turned down. If you ask Bradley Powers what she thinks of the state takeover, she doesnt hesitate.
Ms. POWERS: Well I dont think it was a success. No, I really dont.
ROSE: Camdens poverty rate remains near 40 percent and it still ranks among the most dangerous cities in America. With most of the bailout funds spent, state lawmakers voted earlier this month to turn power back over to city government.
Professor RICHARD HARRIS (Rutgers Camden): I dont think anyone who authored the legislation thought by putting a $175 million in play youre going to flip a switch and Camdens problems were going to be fixed.
ROSE: Richard Harris teaches political science at Rutgers Camden. He says New Jerseys takeover had more modest goals, to spur private investment while also rebuilding city government.
Prof. HARRIS: There's actually been a significant amount of progress on revitalizing the downtown and the city, but in terms of revitalizing or making more robust government, that you'd have to mark down as not being a success.
ROSE: But its that local government that is now running Camden for the first time in eight years. Newly elected Mayor Dana Redd declined requests for an interview, but in her inaugural address she pledged to use her power to make Camden cleaner and safer.
Mayor DANA REDD (Camden): Because united we will change Camden. Camden - are you with me?
(Soundbite of applause)
ROSE: Now its up to the mayor to do what generations of local and state leaders could not.
For NPR News, Im Joel Rose.
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