Advocates push to turn once-seedy Camden stretch into park
CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) -- A stretch of highway lined with hourly rate motels, strip clubs and prostitutes was cleared 15 years ago, but the park that was promised there for the people of this struggling city still has not been delivered.
Although there are paths, trees and a few picnic tables, an advocacy group says the strip of patchy grass in Camden is hardly the vibrant greenspace that was envisioned, complete with a boat launch, playground and fishing dock. What's more, what's there now is officially closed to the public and its only parking area is gated off.
The group's frustration only increased after the county announced it would spend $23 million to upgrade another park along the Cooper River -- less than a mile away but across the city line.
The group now plans a protest next week to demand the Camden park be completed, after opening ceremonies for the bare-bones version of the park were twice canceled this year because officials say environmental cleanup isn't finished.
Tom Knoche said he asked officials about the park over the years, but he always heard there was no money for it.
Knoche, a former Camden resident who now lives in suburban Haddon Township, and other advocates ramped up their efforts to get the park built five years ago when county officials announced the improvements to the other park outside Camden, a city that consistently ranks among the country's most impoverished.
"That's when we said, `Hey, wait a minute,"' he said.
"They're spending all this money on the east side but nothing's being done on the west side" of the city line, said Kevin Barfield, who lives in Camden's Parkside neighborhood and is a member of the Friends of the Cooper River Park West, a group Knoche helped form. "Camden residents seem to be always pushed back. We're always being shortchanged when it comes to developing our city."
He says city residents need more access to nature, and some advocates contend that the Cooper River in Camden is better for kayaking and birdwatching than the areas in the suburbs.
But being on the land there now technically constitutes trespassing because the park's not open to the public yet.
The other day, Tom and Melissa Helvig, who live in Mount Holly, were chatting -- as the couple often does -- at one of a few picnic tables under a few trees in the park area along Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
"It's good," she said. "I wish there was more, like a playground."
That was the plan.
Admiral Wilson Boulevard, which runs through Camden, linking the suburbs to the east with the Ben Franklin Bridge to Philadelphia, was the home of the nation's first department store with a big parking lot and the first drive-in theater, a living monument to the automobile. Eventually, several car dealers moved there.
But in the 1970s, it became a symbol of sin, with motels, liquor stores and go-go bars -- not the kind of welcome to New Jersey that officials were proud of.
In 2000, with the Republican National Convention coming to Philadelphia, it all vanished.
The Delaware River Port Authority and state government spent about $50 million to buy and clear properties and fix the road.
By the time delegates arrived in late August, the seedy side was gone.
Back then, officials promised the money would not just be used clean it up but to create something for the city's people. They were talking about picnic areas, playgrounds and a fishing platform. The Delaware River Port Authority was supposed to clean it up then transfer it to Camden County.
But the transfer hasn't happened.
Jeff Nash, who serves as a board member on the DRPA and the Camden County Freeholder Board, said he hadn't heard the public calling for the park to open until recently.
The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority is in line to take ownership of the land and manage it jointly with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
The transfer hasn't taken place largely because environmental remediation is still ongoing. Mike Conallen, the deputy CEO of the DRPA, said he believes the cost of the remaining work will be less than $1 million and that most of the park could be ready to be reopened by the end of the summer, though some areas where the soil is contaminated would have to be fenced off.
There may be an incentive to show off the city to visitors again: The Democratic National Convention is scheduled for Philadelphia next year.
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