On one of the hottest days last August, residents of Camden’s Mt. Ephraim Avenue opened their doors to take in a curious site. It was Mayor Victor Carstarphen, with bullhorn in hand, marching down the avenue in the 90° heat tailed by high school cheerleaders waving pom poms and yelling “let’s get vaccinated!” They were followed by a Mister Softee truck and fire engines. At the rear of the entourage, emergency workers from the County Department of Health, Cooper University Health Care and the Rutgers School of Nursing were ready to distribute shots along with the soft serve.

Camden County, New JerseyThe makeshift parade was one of the more creative team efforts that have helped Camden County government protect and restore the lives of residents over the course of the pandemic. Since the county’s first Covid-19 case was logged on March 6, 2020, businesses, hospitals, universities, government agencies and residents have worked together to weather unprecedented challenges.

“The response of Camden County employees and our healthcare partners has been and continues to be nothing short of amazing,” says Camden County Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. “Our testing and vaccination programs were well organized and implemented efficiently. Food distribution was also a tremendous success. We provided residents with as much assistance as we possibly could. I could not be more proud of our employees and our healthcare partners.”

County Commissioner Louis Capelli Jr. Speaks at Camden County, New Jersey Event

We believe vaccines are critical to stemming the tide of the virus spread, so we’re going to keep encouraging those who are still hesitant to get the shots.”
-Camden County Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli, Jr

 

While still actively engaged in fighting Covid-19, Cappelli sees reasons to be hopeful. A clear majority of county residents, some 75%, have had at least one dose of the vaccine while 68% are fully vaccinated. Covid testing sites and vaccine distribution efforts are by now well-oiled machines, and they’re sticking around.

“We believe vaccines are critical to stemming the tide of the virus spread, so we’re going to keep encouraging those who are still hesitant to get the shots,” Cappelli says.

Additionally, there are ongoing efforts to help residents who have been impacted financially from the pandemic. The county has so far distributed $40 million of the federal American Relief Act funds to small businesses and some $7 million for rental assistance. The results have been significant. The unemployment rate, which hit a high of 14% during the stay-at-home order in the spring of 2020, fell to 5.3% at the end of 2021. With the number of Covid cases decreasing as the Omicron variant fades, the county is moving ahead with ambitious plans to continue improving the quality of life for county residents, encouraging innovative public safety measures and making major enhancements to public parks.

Camden County, New Jersey Police Officer high-five's local kid

Reducing Crime

A silver lining of the county’s pandemic response, Cappelli said, has been the way it has strengthened the relationship between police officers and residents, both in Camden City and the county. Over the course of the Covid-19 crisis, public safety officers have played a key role in linking citizens to life-saving programs.

“The Camden County Police Department went door to door through Camden neighborhoods, communicating in different languages and conveying the importance of testing and vaccines, and connecting residents to food pantries and rent relief,” Cappelli says. “They made so much progress building trust with the citizens they service. It’s been true community policing.”

Not only did this connection help with Covid-fighting efforts, it cut down on crime.

“If you look at cities in other areas of the country, such as Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, crime is increasing drastically,” Cappelli says. “We’re not seeing that here. Crime went down significantly both in the city of Camden and across the county.”

Murders, which hit a high of 67 in 2012, were down to 23 in both 2020 and 2021. Total violent crimes are down by 40% from where they were 10 years ago. In contrast, the FBI reported a 29% increase for the nation’s estimated tally of violent crimes in 2020.

Another way police and the communities they serve are working together is by joining together for charitable projects, said Sheriff Gilbert “Whip” Wilson.

No Shave November is among the most high-profile. Officers grew out their beards or fingernails to raise more than $30,000 for local causes, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House. “No Shave November came from the officers, not me,” Wilson says. “I love the ideas they have to engage our communities.”

Across the county, a major initiative to transform the juvenile justice system has also led to better relationships between law enforcement and residents, says Camden County Commissioner Jonathan Young. Among the biggest accomplishments: Police officers in communities with high rates of youth arrests have been trained, and are empowered, to take measures to avoid sending juvenile offenders through the court system. Instead, they’re reaching out to families, schools and community groups to provide help. In the first 3 years of the program, arrests of juveniles were down almost 25%.

“It’s called curb-side adjustments. If it’s something minor, the police officer can decide to have a conversation with the child’s family members and offer wrap-around services instead of court intervention,” Young says. “What’s really driving the success is that it’s building trust and relationships.”

Cappelli added that recent state-level reform of the hiring practices for public safety officers paves the way for even more meaningful change. Candidates for entry-level police jobs are now exempt from passing the Civil Service Exam, which slowed the pace of hiring and served as a barrier to hiring more people of color.

“That means better staffing and also a more diverse police department,” Cappelli says. “So, the fact that staffing should not be an issue as we move forward is something that will make our department stronger.”

Violent crime statistics for Camden City from 1974 to 2021

Violent crime statistics for Camden City from 1974 to 2021

Expanding Green Spaces

Finally, a massive investment in green spaces across the county is directly tied to improving the health of residents. An ambitious 5-year plan, known as Parks Alive 2025, includes upgrades to all 23 public parks and conservation areas. There will be purchases of open spaces, investments in historical properties and new recreational facilities, including a fishing pier for Newton Park in Haddon Twp. and a running track for Cooper River Park, says Commissioner Jeffrey Nash.

“We’re working very hard to bring parks to people and people to parks, because they’re such wonderful amenities that enhance the quality of life for residents,” Nash says.

The Board is in the throes of developing one of the most ambitious projects in the county’s history: The cross-county trail. The 32-mile, multi-use trail will stretch from the base of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Camden all the way to Winslow Township. Eventually, it will connect to trails in Atlantic County and Philadelphia’s trail system.

In Camden alone, the $100 million investment in parks over the last dozen years so far has been a game changer, says Dana Redd, chair of the Camden County Partnership and former Camden City Mayor.

“We’re working very hard to bring parks to people and people to parks, because they’re such wonderful amenities that enhance the quality of life for residents.”
-County Commissioner Jeffrey Nash

“Going back to the really challenging years in Camden, many of these open spaces were used for illicit activity,” Redd says. “To change it from where it was to where it is today gives residents opportunities to come and enjoy open spaces that are theirs by right. Parks anchor a community and act as a stabilizing force.” The transformation of the Harrison Avenue Landfill into Cramer Hill Waterfront Park is among the most ambitious of these projects. The 86-acre municipal landfill was never properly closed and capped, leaving it vulnerable to illegal dumping for years. While the first 24 acres of the landfill were cleaned and converted into the Kroc Center in 2014, the $47 million cleanup and construction of the park, completed last year, connects the community with its waterfront and regional trails for the first time in a generation.

“Converting the landfill into a park is what environmental justice looks like,” Redd says. “It’s now a crown jewel of the community.”

A Bright Future

After 2 years of managing the unprecedented challenges brought on by Covid-19, Cappelli can see a bright future ahead. “Cases are dropping dramatically, new medicines are being developed, businesses are operating well and hiring … and, we are prepared for any future pandemics,” Cappelli adds. “We all have many reasons to be very optimistic about the future.”

 


Saddlehill Cellars’ barn manager Kate Bosch and owner Bill Green

Bringing horses back

Last year, when entrepreneur Bill Green purchased Stafford Farm, a 248-year-old, 70-acre plot in the heart of Voorhees, the Camden County native became the proud owner of land that originally belonged to then-Continental Army General George Washington. The founding father gifted the land to John Stafford, his personal guard and the farm’s namesake.

Now, in a nod to the land’s historic roots, Green is busy preparing for the opening of Saddlehill Cellars, a combination winery, horse stables and flower/ produce stand expected to open in May.

Camden County Commissioner Jeffrey Nash, liaison to the Department of Parks, is excited about the plan for what has been a landmark piece of green space in the center of Camden County over the last 2 centuries.

“We are so glad that this incredible, storied property will be in the hands of someone who understands its history and plans to return it to its original use,” Nash says. “Preserving this beautiful open space and horse farm was a top priority for the Board 17 years ago. By bringing agriculture and horses back to the farm, we’ll not only be welcoming a successful entrepreneur back to the county, but we’ll see the creation of a resource that members of our community can learn from and experience for years to come.”

The property, which was passed down through generations of the Stafford family, nearly became a housing development in the early 2000s when the Stafford family put it up for sale. Proposals eyed at the time included an all-residential development or a mixed commercial/residential development, which Nash says would have dramatically increased traffic and compromised the community’s bucolic setting. The county, state and a nonprofit preservation group pooled together to purchase it in 2004 for $20.6 million. Under the ownership agreement, the land was designated as a preserved agricultural space, preventing it from being bought and used for other commercial purposes or wholesale development.

Green, who paid $900,000 for the property last March, expects to quickly restore the horse track and has brought horses back to the property. He is already making substantial upgrades to pursue his vision for the farm.

“Acquiring the farm is a passion project for my family and me, and we can’t wait to return this beautiful farmland to the community,” Green says. “This is an investment that we plan to keep making for years to come, and we hope to be able to bring groups from the community in and share it with them once the process is further along. I am incredibly thankful that the state and the county preserved this land for the last decade and a half.”

March 2022
Related Articles
Comments

Leave a Reply

Lara Price: Trust the Process
Advertisement
Ravi's Bimah

Get SJ Mag in Your Inbox

Subscribe for the latest on South Jersey dining, weekend entertainment, the Shore and much more - sent directly to your inbox.

* indicates required
Email Format
Advertisement
BF-Pleasantville-BUTTONAd
Advertisement
May Issue WEB AD
Advertisement
dining guide web ad
WATCH NOW: It's A South Jersey Summer
Advertisement
May Issue WEB AD
Advertisement