Speaking earlier this month at the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership (CFP) annual meeting, Mayor Dana L. Redd outlined a blueprint for transforming Camden, New Jersey from one of the nation’s poorest urban areas into a more ‘livable city.’ Along with stronger crime prevention measures and more effective job creation programs, the mayor cited a focus on education as a top priority. The importance of Camden as an academic center is borne out by CFP statistics, which note that the city’s higher education institutions have already swelled to 11,900 undergraduate and graduate students, with the number of Rutgers-Camden students alone expected to grow to almost 4,000 within just a few years. It’s a positive trend that Barnes & Noble College’s Dan Knittel notices everyday in his University District Bookstore. “We’re unique in the company in that we service not one, but three different schools, and it makes for a thriving community,” he says. In addition to Rutgers University-Camden and Rowan University, the bookstore also serves students of Camden County College.
The changes in the city’s fortunes are perhaps most visible in the new enterprise zones like the University District, where the Barnes & Noble College bookstore is located. Strategically located in the heart of Camden, the store is within easy reach of the three colleges it serves and half a mile from the Delaware waterfront, Susquehanna Bank Center and the renowned Adventure Aquarium. Knittel believes his store is also emblematic of the transformation occurring around the city. “On any given day, you’ll see city architects discussing plans in our Starbucks coffee shop, or City Hall officials or business people coming in – along with our students,” he says.
Fronting busy Cooper Street, the store is part of a seven-floor public parking garage structure and has been transformed from the former 13,500-square-foot bookstore space two years ago. In a renovation that now includes a 51-seat café, second-floor technology section and a spacious bookstore, it creates not just a key college resource, but also a venue for students, local business people, community neighbors and government employees to meet, browse and relax. Building a sense of community is something Knittel takes seriously – meeting with all three universities on a monthly basis to discuss ways the store can better serve students. These meetings also spur new event ideas such as Freshman Night for the Rutgers-Camden students, which gave new students an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the store and be introduced to the services of other vendors.
Last summer, 50 members of the inaugural class at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University began their studies in a $139 million medical school building in Camden, an event that Knittel says will result in a ‘fourth’ customer as he re-engineers his store to include new medical course materials and supplies. With Rowan University expanding and Rutgers building a new $100 million nursing school, there is certainly a feeling of new optimism in Camden. “The the city is making a lot of changes for the better,” points out Knittel, “We have some excellent students attending really great colleges here.” he adds, “That can only lead to more positive things for this city.”