The operators of a horticultural playground are pledging to fight the state government’s effort to close the site on the Camden waterfront amid a push to make way for more economic development and perhaps an expansion of the Adventure Aquarium next door.
The state Treasury Department sent Camden Children’s Garden founder and director Mike Devlin a letter dated Jan. 14, giving him until March 31 to move out of the site that’s been its home since it opened in 1999. The state contends that the children’s garden has no lease, pays no rent and has no right to be on the property, which is owned by the state government.
The letter said the Camden City Garden Club, which operates the children’s garden, can lease office and storage space and greenhouses so it can keep other parts of its operation running.
Devlin said the loss of a place where kids can interact with nature would be a blow to a community that’s one of the poorest and most violent in the country.
“We’re going to take it on on a number of levels, legally and community-wise,” he said. One point of contention: Devlin, a former Camden city councilman, said the transfer of the land from the city to the state government in 1999 is not legal because the council never approved it.
The garden opened in 1999 as an oasis for city kids and also part of a string of tourist attractions along the Delaware River just across from Philadelphia. It was built and updated with $12.5 million worth of donations over the years. It features a carousel, butterfly house and other attractions.
In its early years, the children’s garden attendance rose steadily, peaking at 625,000 visitors per year.
But it’s fallen on hard times since 2004, when the old New Jersey State Aquarium, which had a partnership with the children’s garden, was replaced by the for-profit Adventure Aquarium.
Now, Deviln said, the group — which lost its state operating subsidy in 2010 — is closed for the winter and has fewer than 200,000 visitors per year.
Meanwhile, the garden club has gotten national acclaim for developing 120 community gardens in Camden and its youth training program and now has a federal grant to deliver fresh produce to city neighborhoods.
Devlin said that work cannot be continued without the garden for classes and equipment storage. Bill Quinn, a state Treasury Department spokesman, said the state is willing to lease the garden club the space that’s needed for those programs.
“The basic idea has been to free up the land for other possible uses, economic development uses,” Quinn said. “The aquarium has expressed interest and so have other parties.”
Kimberly Walker, a spokeswoman for the aquarium, which is owned by Norcross, Ga.-based Hershend Family Entertainment, said she could not confirm whether the aquarium had plans to expand into the land now used by the garden.
Anthony Perno, CEO of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit development agency that helped put up the children’s garden in the first place, said Hershend “is always looking at new and exciting new ways to entertain it guests. The fact that they’re looking at us would actually be a great thing.”
Walker said that the aquarium, which features hippopotami, penguins and a walk-through shark tank, has had more than 6 million visitors over the past seven years.
But Devlin said that whatever would be brought in would not be as good for the community as what is there now.
“They’re rushing us out of here in two months because they want to help Hershend Entertainment,” he said sarcastically, “because I guess there’s an entertainment crisis in Camden.”