$710K grant marks start of Pennsauken improvements

By William Sokolic, Courier-Post

On River Road at the head of Bannard Park in Pennsauken, the Delaware River might as well be a mile away rather than a block.

But that perception could change as part of a new five-year, $710,000 grant, according to Betsy McBride, deputy mayor and a grant booster.

The funds would provide resources to clear away brush and dead trees and create a trail leading to the RiverLINE tracks by the Delaware. Improvements to the park could include an amphitheater for concerts.

The grant, announced Wednesday, is multifaceted and covers a wide geographic swath in Pennsauken. Known as the Delaware Gardens Neighborhood Initiative, it targets the area from 36th Street to Browning Road and from River Road to Route 130.

The East Camden neighborhood adjacent to Pennsauken received $725,000 for a similar initiative.

The Wells Fargo Regional Foundation granted the funds to the township, the Camden County Board of Freeholders and UrbanPromise to assist youth with jobs, improve safety, upgrade the business corridor on Westfield Avenue, redevelop River Road, stabilize housing, target clean and green initiatives and build community in a diverse neighborhood.

Part of the program, dubbed Promise Team, works with 18- to 25-year-olds on probation for nonviolent crimes. The young people will receive a stipend to help clean up neighborhoods, while working on skills such as resume writing, McBride noted.

The grant grew from a resident survey a few years back, Mayor Jack Killion said. The results indicated people wanted, among other things, better signage, improved playgrounds, the hiring of youth to clean up lots and increased community pride.

Down 36th Street, where Camden and Pennsauken share a border, boundaries blur, McBride indicated. Changes funded by the grant are expected to instill a sense of community — with resident input, the deputy mayor added.

“We need to engage the residents so they embrace the program.”

Retired veteran Lazarus E. Jackson Jr. lives next door to a house that has been vacant for three years. While the lawn of the empty house gets mowed in front, the caretakers do nothing with the jungle growing out back, he complained.

“I have a beautiful lawn with a straight line,” he noted by comparison.

Jackson has a laundry list of items he’d like to see done to make life more livable in his town, including appropriate parking signs and repaired potholes.

Grant money also will be used to inventory trees, remove dead and diseased ones and plant others. Still another aspect deals with home maintenance education provided by Camden’s St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society via a free, eight-week course on minor home repairs.

Grant funds also will pay for sprucing up vacant properties — whether commercial or residential — and graffiti cleanup.

In addition, the Camden County Office of Sustainability will provide professional assistance with projects to enhance tree cover, rain gardens and neighborhood trail development.

“We will offer UrbanPromise and Pennsauken consultation as well as professional help for some of the physical enhancements,” Camden County Freeholder Michelle Gentek indicated in an email.

“We will help organize green team participation and help with parks, trees and trail work, because that will go along with our multi-use trail plan.”

The county public works is already in the process of working on the intersection of 36th and Rudderow streets.

“This is a high-speed area, so the county will be putting in a pedestrian light for people to push a button and have 20 seconds to cross the road,” Gentek noted.

“They will also install crossing signs and curb cuts so they are handicap accessible.”

McBride acknowledges $710,000 spread over five years doesn’t buy much.

“We need to go after other grants — for tools, murals, trees,” she said.

Pennsauken as a whole reaps the benefits as the township seeks more funding, Killion noted.

“We’re not going to turn down any money.”