Camden County plans 100 events to commemorate its premier public space hitting the century mark, including an anniversary pilsner with Double Nickel of Pennsauken.
By Matt Skoufalos | April 6, 2023
The seeds of the idea that would become Cooper River Park first were commissioned by Victor Talking Machine Co. founder Eldridge Johnson more than a century ago, said Camden County Commissioner Jeffrey Nash, liaison to the county parks system.
Johnson envisioned creating a recreational area for his Camden City workers to enjoy “in what was then the country, Pennsauken,” Nash said.
In the time since the park was conceived, it’s been both a serene space for recreation and a dumping ground for waste from Camden County homes and businesses.
But today, it’s a premier public amenity in the 2,000-acre Camden County Parks system, as well as a key economic driver for the region.
“One hundred years has a winding history,” Nash said.
“People who have lived here over the past 75 years remember the days when you could not walk into the Cooper because of the pollution,” he said.
“Thanks to the Clean Water Act and the CCMUA, the river was cleaned. Now we have bass fishing tournaments and regattas.”
To commemorate the century that passed since Johnson charged landscape architect Charles Wellford Leavitt with developing his vision for Cooper River Park, Camden County has planned a calendar of 100 events for this parks season.
One of the highlights of that calendar comes May 12, when the Dad Vail regatta relocates to Cooper River Park from its historic home on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.
To kick off the weekend, the county will release Cooper River Park 100, a collaboration with Double Nickel Brewing of Pennsauken, May 11.
The anniversary brew is a 5.0-percent pilsner with lemon, which Double Nickel General Manager Brian Needham described as “an easy-drinking beer that works for everyone.”
Fans will find Cooper River Park 100 at Camden County events all summer, with some distribution to local bars and beverage centers.
“One of the cool things about being a local brewery is the fact that we can really tailor something specifically for an event right here in our backyard,” Needham said.
“A whole lot of our team grew up in Camden County,” he said. “We spent a lot of years going to Cooper River Park and different county events, like the concerts the county puts on every summer.
“It’s something that we were excited to be a part of; to come up with something cool for them to feature this summer.”
Still a work in progress
In 1926, three years after Eldridge’s commission, Leavitt produced “Health, Sunshine, and Wealth,” a playbook for the Camden County government to develop a network of county parks along the banks of the Cooper River.
Today, Cooper River Park itself offers quick access to public amenities including a dog park, playground, track-and-field stadium, sculpture garden, bocce court, boat house, and driving range.
These didn’t all arise overnight, however, and neither do they define the limits of what the park can yet become, Camden County Parks Director Maggie McCann Johns said.
“In one of the tomes that kind of memorializes the work that was done over the 20s and 30s, and up to the war, Charles Leavitt was quoted as saying, ‘This is a work in progress; there’s so much more that needs to be developed,’” McCann Johns said.
“A hundred years later, that that’s still true,” she said.
“Now, with a much larger population than we had in 1923, we need more [public] spaces, especially in our overdeveloped area.
“We’re still working on expanding; making sure that there’s all of this access.”
The more than $10-million dredging project that cleaned up decades of waste runoff in the Cooper River, and deepened it in the process, kicked off a new wave of reinvestment in Cooper River Park.
For competitive rowers, the river offers one of the longest straightaway courses in the northeastern United States. Camden County leveraged that advantage by reinvesting in improvements that can support rowing infrastructure, including starting docks and a new pedestrian bridge linking rowers to their staging area.
As a result, the Dad Vail is only one of a dozen regattas on the books for Cooper River in 2023, McCann Johns said. The park will also host the NCAA Division I, II, and III women’s rowing championships from 2023 through 2025, as well as pre-championship qualifying races; state, junior, and scholastic regattas; and others.
Those events have the potential to drive massive economic interest, as teams and their families flock to Camden County from throughout the country.
“Those were the things we were going after,” McCann Johns said. “How can we put ourselves in a place that’s going to make us go from a very good venue to a great venue that the likes of an NCAA championship or the Dad Vail want to come here?”
Other improvements in the works for Cooper River Park include infrastructure fixes, like constructing a pedestrian bridge over Route 130 to connect the park interior to the Camden County Golf Academy.
Further off is an upgraded Cuthbert Boulevard bridge at the opposite end of the park, “making it really pedestrian-friendly on both sides, and giving people a place to step off the main thoroughfare and enjoy the view from up there,” McCann Johns said.
“We’ve started talking to our highway department and trying to figure it out,” she said.
Plans are also in the works to overhaul the Cooper River Park playground along a local prehistoric theme. McCann Johns said she’d like to construct a climbable Haddy the Hadrosaurus, along with some local education about the historic hadrosaurus site that lies within the county parks system in Haddonfield.
Along South Park Drive, the county is working with state government offices to develop a plan for the preservation of the historic Hopkins House and WPA-era structures there.
It’s also working in partnership with the Cooper River Yacht Club to sponsor community sailing and waterway exploration programs.
Further down towards Route 130 are athletic fields that McCann Johns said will be rehabilitated to provide a better playing experience.
Likewise, the popular Armitage Pavilion, which houses countless events, from family reunions and church picnics to birthday parties and softball cookouts, is also due for an upgrade.
McCann Johns also said she’d like the county to redevelop and activate the former mini golf course at Cuthbert and North Park Drive. It’s currently the site of the county winter skating rink, and a potential contender for situating a planned skatepark, which is contemplated in the $100-million “Parks Alive” reinvestment project announced last year.
Reinvesting in shared, publicly accessible amenities is essential, not only for their economic impact, but also because county-scale projects can achieve more than most communities could on their own, McCann Johns said.
“I think what the government does well is own and maintain spaces for the public to use,” she said. “Being able to provide amenities in Cooper River Park that you couldn’t have built in your backyard, but that collectively, we can share, is really important.”
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