Camden activists use boycott to fight Campbell
CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - June 2, 2010 -- Activists are trying something new in a battle that's been waging for three years now over two icons in one of the nation's poorest cities.
To save an imposing and ornate building that housed a Sears store for more than 40 years, they're asking people to boycott the company that has volunteered to redevelop a blighted part of Camden - the Campbell Soup Co.
About a dozen of the activists gathered Wednesday in the Sears parking lot to draw attention to their attempt to save a building that's on both state and national registers of historic places. They want supporters to stop buying Campbell's soups and other products.
"I love Campbell's, I love Chunky soup," said Mary Cortes, the secretary of the activist group Camden United, Inc. "I will not be served a bowl of soup. ... We have integrity."
Campbell, a company founded in the city in 1869, has remained a resident as other institutions - even a Catholic high school - left. But in the past decade, it considered moving.
In 2007, its leaders announced they would stay, expand their headquarters and oversee redevelopment of the surrounding - mostly desolate - swath of the city, turning it into a suburban-style office park for other businesses. It was a gesture to help a struggling city.
Since then, the company has spent $93 million on the project. A new building at the heart of its corporate campus is to open next week. The company has bought land nearby and paid to have some of it cleaned up.
The city, county and state governments have spent $23 million to reconfigure roads in the area; the state has cleaned up some spots in the area tainted by environmental damage.
But now, Campbell says, there's a big hitch in creating the office center. The company says developers have advised them that it's not a viable project as long as the Sears building, in its current run-down condition, stands at the part of the area that's most visible to the public.
Campbell doesn't own the building, which sits in the area targeted for redevelopment. It wants the city to acquire it, possibly by using its power of eminent domain, then sell it to Campbell or a developer.
The building opened in 1927 in a monumental style that most Sears stores lacked, and with a key feature to foreshadow malls that would come to dominate the New Jersey landscape decades later: a huge parking lot.
The store was just down the road from the then-new Ben Franklin Bridge, which connects Camden with Philadelphia, and was designed as a destination for shoppers zipping out of Philly in their Model T's.
During the decades that followed, the suburbs grew up and Camden suffered. Finally, in 1971, the same year race riots gripped the city, Sears closed it Camden store and opened a new one in the Moorestown Mall.
It's now been a former Sears store almost as long as it was a Sears.
It had lives as a car dealership and a nightclub. It's housed a day care center and a housing authority office. But it's been vacant and boarded for the last several years.
In 2007, Campbell first talked about knocking down the building to make way for the office park.
But its efforts to buy the structure failed. Instead, it was sold to Ilan Zaken, owner of a pair of hip-hop fashion companies, the Dr. Denim chain of stores and the Miskeen Originals clothing company.
Zaken planned to fix up the building and turn it into headquarters for his companies, with a store, offices and warehouse.
Campbell granted Zaken a chance to realize his dream.
But it didn't happen. By last year, Campbell was again saying the building should come down. The city agrees.
Zaken did not appear with the activists on Wednesday. But his business partner, Tony Merlino, laid out their vision for the Sears building: A distribution center for up to 40 restaurant supply firms.
The partners already have installed a new roof and are gutting the building to prepare it for the new enterprise.
Merlino said 21 businesses already have signed on, including 11 with leases.
Cortes says she wants to open a company that makes restaurant linens and aprons there.
Philadelphia caterer Barry Sexton wants to put a culinary school in part of the building.
Anthony Sanzio, a spokesman for Campbell, said the company doesn't believe the plans will come to fruition.
"Saying you're going to do something and doing it are two entirely different things," he said. "There's no business model that we can detect."
Besides, he said, there already are two nonprofit groups in Camden that have cooking schools. Both get funding from Campbell. The future of the Sears Building is likely to be decided in court.
Zaken and activist Frank Fulbrook, who has filed 24 lawsuits in the last 23 years - mostly against governments - and won 20, have sued to try to block the city from acquiring and razing the building. Arguments are scheduled for October.
Fulbrook, a wire-thin man with round glasses and gray hair halfway down his back, said it's not Merlino's plan that should be doubted. He cited several examples around the country of governments knocking down buildings to make way for new developments that never materialize.
"The Sears building's an actual building, it's not a theoretical building," he said, gesturing to the forlorn 120,000-square foot structure. "There it is."
camden, camden county, campbell's soup, business/finance
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