McCargo Jr’s ‘Camden Food Factory’ vision would transform the Ruby Match Factory into an indoor aquaponic farm, events space, food truck commissary, and more. It’s getting a $125K boost from NJEDA.
By Matt Skoufalos | June 30, 2023
Food insecurity in America remains a persistent economic challenge for millions of people, and in food desert communities (FDCs) — areas that lack access to a ready supply of fresh food — the problem can be even worse.
Camden City is one such place, having been designated an FDC by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) under the state Food Desert Relief Act, which is intended to spur investment in such areas to address the problem.
In May, NJEDA awarded more than $1 million to projects in FDCs across the state “to support the development of plans to improve food access and food security by leveraging and repurposing distressed assets” there.
One of those awards went to Camden City, in support of a proposal that would repurpose the Ruby Match Factory building at 300 North Delaware Avenue into a multi-use project that chef Aaron McCargo, Jr. calls “a mixed-use food innovation center.”
“It’s a project that I’ve been waiting and wanting to do for a long time,” McCargo, Jr. said. “It’s centered around giving the community what I believe is a major need, and a beneficial need that should be answered.”
Describing the project as ambitious is almost understating the case. McCargo, Jr.’s vision for the 1.26-acre property would integrate a variety of uses: hydroponic vertical farming, aquaculture, and green energy generation; a commissary for food trucks and food startups; a rooftop deck with views of the Delaware River waterfront; and a mix of food-based businesses.
The chef described it as a version of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, created with the flavors and style of Camden City. He hopes it can become a comparable destination for tourists and shoppers as much as for residents seeking healthy, locally produced food.
“I realized this would be a great opportunity to build something special for the community, and a safe haven for folks to come into Camden and stay more on the weekends,” McCargo, Jr. said. “Folks living in the city and working there will be able to buy groceries five to seven days a week.”
From matchstick men to mapping the future of food
The history of the Ruby Match Factory in Camden City is a lengthy one.
Built around 1899 as the headquarters of a fledgling matchstick company that sought to compete with the (much bigger) Diamond Match Company, the business it was meant to support fell apart before it could get off the ground.
The building stood firm, however, and around 1904, was acquired by the rapidly expanding Campbell Soup Company, which christened it “Warehouse No. 1,” and continued to use it until its sale in 1982.
The narrative that accompanied its submission to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 notes that the sale likely saved the warehouse “from the whole-scale demolition of all remaining Campbell’s buildings, including both plants, in 1991.”
Warehouse No. 1 is believed to have remained vacant from that point on, until it was acquired by Philadelphia realty group AthenianRazak, which won incentives from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) to redevelop the property as an office building, as reported by Flying Kite Media in 2016.
That project never came to pass, however, with AthenianRazak citing a lack of interest from prospective tenants, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018.
In 2020, AthenianRazak merged with Spruce Realty of Philadelphia to become AR Spruce, which still controls the property today, and is listed along with redevelopment agency Camden Community Partnership (formerly Cooper’s Ferry Partnership), McCargo Jr.’s AMJ Group, and the City of Camden as principals in the redevelopment project.
McCargo, Jr. said he’s dreamed of putting a restaurant in the building at 300 North Delaware since he was a middle-schooler.
Yet at that time, he likely couldn’t have conceived of the technology that is to underpin the planned project.
The building would be powered by natural gas turbines that drive highly efficient heating and cooling systems, and are supported by a rooftop solar array.
Stormwater runoff will be gathered in 5,000-gallon tanks for reuse within the facility.
Additional power is to be sourced from clean energy suppliers. Justin Beiter of K&A Engineering Consulting is the energy partner tasked with developing that portion of the project.
“We’re trying to run a net zero here, recycling a lot of our energy,” McCargo, Jr. said.
According to plans for the space, vertical farming technology can grow produce and fish (tilapia) “in an aquaponic closed loop system” that guides fish waste and the ammonia produced from their gills through a nitrification process. Those nutrients are absorbed by the growing plants, which filter the water, extract the nutrients, and recycle the clean water back to the fish through deep water troughs.
Vertical farming also insulates crops from outdoor elements, controls for optimal growth, and yields a harvest at peak freshness, with no need to transport offsite. Root-structured produce, like leafy greens and herbs, flourish best in such a system; vine-based vegetables are more suited to traditional farming. Fish can be harvested when they reach 2 to 2.5 pounds.
The project would supplement these items cultivated onsite with a meat market, grains and beans, pasta, traditionally grown produce, cheese a bakery, spice vendors, and a wholesale market.
Shoppers who use electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards from programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) will be able to leverage those programs onsite.
300 North Delaware will also offer a commissary space and a truck depot for mobile food businesses, an onsite events space capable of hosting some 250 people, plus a planned rooftop deck with a view of the Delaware River waterfront.
“We’re going to have a couple restaurants and bars on the second floor as well,” McCargo, Jr. said.
He estimates that the project could create some 100 to 150 jobs, conservatively, while also developing a marketplace for small, independent vendors to reach their audiences.
Even beyond those ambitions, McCargo, Jr. believes the facility will showcase Camden City as a destination for more than concerts and the “eds and meds” corridor of healthcare and university properties.
“This thought that’s been planted about how unsafe Camden is, this is why I’m here,” he said. “You bring a celebrity chef that has great partners that see and believe in the vision — the support and the help of Camden Community Partnership, the mayor’s office, American Water, Rutgers, We See You Security — that have been working hand in hand with us.
“My partners, Joyce and Justin and Josh and Nichelle, are the core group that has helped me take this vision from a year ago to where we are now,” McCargo, Jr. said. “And none of this is done without my faith in God and the blessings from God.
“I’m super-blessed to be surrounded with so many talented people that believe in a vision from over 30 years ago, and now I’m here,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not an accident.”
The project has also landed significant support from NJEDA in the form of a $125,000 planning grant, plus $25,000 in matching funds from Camden City, through the Food Security Planning Grant Program. The project expects to leverage historic tax credits (HTC), renewable energy credits (ITC), and new markets tax credits (NMTC) as well as private and community investments to get off the ground.
AR Spruce has secured an agreement with the Camden County Parking Authority for 200 spaces in a lot just south of the building, but the property itself is in need of significant physical redevelopment. A 2014 building review conducted by Scungio Borst Construction Management created for Cooper’s Ferry Partnership identified baseline needs spanning an entire electrical and sprinkler upgrade, a new roof and supports — and that was nearly a decade ago.
It will take heavy lifting to transform the site, but all those involved are bullish on its prospects.
“Camden is a food desert, and finding solutions to this issue remains a priority of my administration,” said Camden City Mayor Victor Carstarphen in a statement.
“I am pleased to support any effort which improves and provides equitable food access for our residents,” he said. “The City looks forward to the collaboration.”
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