CAMDEN — New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority on Tuesday approved giving $82 million in tax credits to the Philadelphia 76ers to put the NBA’s biggest practice facility in the state’s poorest city.
Mayor Dana Redd said she hopes the move, which will also bring the team’s business operations and at least 250 employees to Camden by the end of 2016, will be a catalyst for further development on the waterfront, a place visited by 3 million people annually but which critics say doesn’t help the city enough.
State officials said the deal, which delivers the tax credits over 10 years, is expected to bring in about $158 million in state and local taxes over 35 years. The team would be required to stay in the city for 15 years.
76ers CEO Scott O’Neil said the move “is about basketball,” though he also said the team is “enlightened and inspired by the direction of Camden.”
The 76ers are the only NBA team without its own practice facility. For 15 years, they have been renting a single court at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The team, trying to ascend from years of mediocrity, needs to have new training facilities to help players and attract top free agents, O’Neil said. He also said there’s a benefit to having the basketball and business operations under one roof. The business staff, which includes ticket sales agents and marketers, is currently at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a former military installation that’s now a business park.
The team looked at putting its practice facility at the Navy Yard, but O’Neil said that the incentives New Jersey adopted last year for development in Camden made building there more attractive. He said the New Jersey facility will be three times the size of what the team was planning in Philadelphia and easily the biggest in the NBA.
O’Neil said the team is likely to hold some youth basketball camps at the new facility but that it does not plan to have practices open to the public.
He said the team now employs about 200 people and will hire more, particularly on the business side, by the time it opens in Camden.
Having 250 jobs is key to the subsidy. If the team falls short of that mark in any year, its tax credits would be reduced to $5 million instead of $8.2 million. The credits are to be used toward the team’s New Jersey corporate taxes and can also be sold in the likely event that its tax bill is less than the credits.
The 4-acre plot near the Adventure Aquarium is now owned by the city but is to be transferred to the Economic Development Authority and leased to the 76ers. The land deals are not complete, though, and their terms have not been made public.
At Tuesday’s EDA meeting, held in Camden, Camden NAACP President Kelly Francis asked whether the 76ers’ arrival will create entry-level jobs for residents of Camden, one of the most impoverished cities in the U.S.
“We need a shooting guard,” O’Neil joked.
But Redd said she is working with the team and state government on training programs to help city residents land some of the jobs.
In a telephone interview, Gordon MacInnes, president of the liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said the 76ers’ subsidy, at nearly $330,000 per job, is costing taxpayers too much. “It’s almost mysterious why we pay so much for jobs that are so modest in their return,” he said.
There was also criticism from the anti-tax Americans for Prosperity. “This amounts to nothing more than a ‘free gift’ to a politically connected billionaire,” the group’s New Jersey director, Daryn Iwicki, said in a statement. “How many times must taxpayers be left on the hook before we realize this kind of corporate welfare just doesn’t work?”
The waterfront, once home to the Campbell Soup Co. and RCA, has long been seen as a key to the city’s revitalization.
Over the last two decades, the aquarium, an outdoor concert venue, a minor-league baseball park and a museum aboard the battleship USS New Jersey have opened there, as has a business incubator. While there are a few new restaurants nearby, a vibrant tourism scene has not materialized.
In 2009, the state vacated and razed the old Riverfront State Prison nearby hoping that land could be developed. On Tuesday, the EDA approved turning the property into a parking lot for now.