Christine Whitman was governor of New Jersey, and she knew just what could fix the ailing city of Camden: A baseball stadium.
It was December 14, 1999. The Delaware River Port Authority would vote the next day on whether to authorize the construction of a baseball stadium on the waterfront. The new stadium would be just to the south of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Directly to the north was a prison.
“We have seen in other parts of the state how baseball stadiums have helped to revitalize our cities,” Whitman said in a statement that day. “I’m confident that the Camden baseball stadium will do the same and help to make the city a better place to live, work and raise a family.”
The port authority listened to the governor’s recommendation. The next day it authorized the $17.5 million stadium, to be built mostly with state funds and grants. To help people get to the games it also authorized the construction of a $26 million tram between the Philadelphia and Camden waterfronts that same day.
The baseball stadium was just one in a series of attractions that politicians and developers pitched as a way to revitalize the city in the 1990s. The New Jersey State Aquarium opened in 1992. An open-air amphitheater opened in 1995. A company was planning to open a $100 million “retail-recreation-entertainment complex” next to the baseball stadium.
Eventually, due to a vote by Camden schoolchildren, the name Riversharks was chosen. (It beat out Batts, Cowfish, Craze, Crickets, Rivermen and Waterdogs.) Campbell’s, the soup company that traces its roots back to a plant that opened in Camden in 1869, bought naming rights to the field.
The independent-league Camden Riversharks began play in 2001. Over the next 15 seasons, they won 945 games and lost 1,045. The team never won an Atlantic League title and didn’t qualify for the playoffs after 2008.
Other things happened. Fifteen million dollars was spent on the tram. It never opened, though there’s a giant π on the Philadelphia waterfront that was supposed to be the base of it. The New Jersey State Aquarium was sold to a for-profit company and became the Adventure Aquarium. The open-air amphitheater changed names several times. The retail/recreation/entertainment complex was cancelled just months after the announcement of the stadium. The prison was demolished.
I liked going to Camden baseball games. Once, I took my father and he won the team’s “Best Beard” contest. He got a hot lather machine for his victory. I’ve lived in Center City Philadelphia for more than a decade now, so games were always a quick PATCO ride away. I could even walk over the bridge if I wanted to! I don’t remember much of the baseball—Von Hayes was the team’s manager one season—but I do remember enjoying my trips there.
The primary appeal of the Camden Riversharks was the stadium they played in. Campbell’s Field didn’t revitalize Camden like Whitman claimed it would, but it was a gorgeous ballpark. It had great views of the Ben Franklin Bridge. You could see the Philadelphia skyline. The food was cheap. I continued to go to Riversharks games even after the Phillies got good.
I was one of the few. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in September 2015 that attendance was just 3,100 a game for that season, less than half the size of the stadium. And, in reality, paid attendance was much lower: Tons of free tickets were distributed for each game. A month after that report, the Riversharks folded. The franchise became the New Britain Bees.
Soon, the stadium will be gone. Yesterday South Jersey power broker George Norcross told a group of developers the stadium would soon be demolished to make way for an athletic complex.
“Unfortunately, the state, in its lack of wisdom, built a baseball stadium for an unaffiliated, independent league [team] that folded and $35 million disappeared,” Norcross said at a business event yesterday, according to the Courier-Post. “You’re going to see, in the not-too-distant future, that stadium demolished and in its place will be world-class athletic fields for Rutgers University in Camden and the public schools system and the renaissance schools in Camden, so they will have world-class athletic facilities to utilize.”
Norcross, a Democrat, let the news get out a little early. Rutgers wouldn’t comment directly on his statement. The stadium’s owner, the Camden County Improvement Authority, told the Courier-Post it “is still involved with confidential and deliberative negotiations with a prospective buyer in regard to the Waterfront Stadium.”
But generally Norcross gets his way in South Jersey. And he’s been helping funnel money to Camden for a while now, with cooperation of Republican Chris Christie and the state legislature. Since December 2013, the state has handed out $1.2 billion in tax breaks to businesses to relocate to the city. Subaru is well along on its construction of a new headquarters in Camden; it got $118 million in tax credits from the state to move down the road from Cherry Hill.
The Sixers got $82 million in tax breaks for their new practice facility. When that was announced, a Camden resident asked Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil if there would be jobs for locals. “We need a shooting guard,” he replied. (This is still true.) Holtec International got $260 million in tax incentives to move to the waterfront. (That construction forced out a needle-exchange van; Camden hasn’t been signing Community Benefits Agreements with these companies.) With that kind of money flowing in, a 6,425-seat baseball stadium that mainly hosts the Division III Rutgers-Camden Scarlet Raptors isn’t needed anymore.
“I think you’re going to see a complete redevelopment of the city of Camden,” Norcross said yesterday. “The historic areas of Camden, around Cooper (University Hospital) and Rutgers will remain, but I think you’ll see largely the rest of the city will be redeveloped and new housing built. I think Camden in 10 or 15 years will almost virtually be a brand-new city, newly constructed almost in its entirety, whether it’s industrial, residential or commercial.”
Yes, Norcross sounds a lot like Whitman did 18 years ago. The teams of the late-’90s New Jersey minor league stadium boom—the Camden Riversharks, the Atlantic City Surf, the Newark Bears, the Somerset Patriots—are mostly gone. Only Somerset, in Bridgewater, still exists. The promises of economic revitalization by baseball have failed. Now we’ll see how Camden fares under this next plan. Hmm.