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Sean Ryan is associate editor of Real Estate New Jersey, from which this article is excerpted.

The North New Jersey office market is tied to Manhattan’s health. But that’s not necessarily the case down in Camden County, because although it borders Philadelphia, Cherry Hill and the other towns there are not nearly as dependent on Philadelphia for filling vacancies.

“Outside of Comcast and Philadelphia law firms, the majority of growth here has come from within,” says Kirk Miller, senior director in Cushman & Wakefield’s Philadelphia office. “Commerce Bank has been expanding by leaps and bounds in this market, as has Lockheed-Martin.”

“I would say they’re definitely independent,” agrees Dan McGovern, senior associate at CB Richard Ellis’ Marlton office. “We’ve got a lot of law firms with headquarters in Philadelphia, but they’re two separate marketplaces. You’ve got Cendant Mortgage and Lockheed-Martin as the two largest employers in the marketplace, and they’re fairly independent of Philadelphia.”

“South Jersey is considered a suburb of Philadelphia because we’re right across the bridge, but ironically we’ve had a healthier office market for the past four years,” says Anne Klein, senior vice president of Grubb & Ellis’ Marlton office.

“Even our rental rates are comparable,” she continues. “You’d think a CBD would be able to dictate 20 bucks more per sf. The brand new Philadelphia towers are higher, but a couple of years ago, some of our South Jersey rates were higher. It depends on the place.” The six-million-sf office market has an average rent of $21-$22 per sf with electricity and $19 without, according to McGovern.

“South Jersey historically grows from within,” Klein says. “The good news is that our growth has been steady and our corporate headquarters and corporate tenants are just getting larger.”

Camden County has an overall vacancy of 11.3%; Burlington County to the north is 13.2%. “The interesting thing here is that there are very few large blocks of office space available,” Miller notes. “That’s driving speculative development we’re seeing. These vacancies are comprised mainly of smaller units. Because of that, and because we have so few choices for large users today, we have four developers who decided to go spec.”Opus East, Trefoil Properties, Liberty Property Trust and Whitesell Construction are all bringing projects onto the market around Cherry Hill without tenants secured. And Steiner & Associates is developing new office properties in the region as well. The Opus project, in the Lake Center Executive Park, is a spec project, a sure sign of a market not hurting for tenants. But the boldest project in the region might be the Steiner construction for Susquehanna Bank—it’s in Camden.

The build is on the waterfront, the safest part of the troubled city. “Camden won ‘worst crime in the country’ for the second year in a row, so there’s nothing to boast there,” says Klein.

“You want to think that every place is re-habitable,” says Matthew Weilheimer, vice president of the Kislak Co., Woodbridge. “But in Camden, you’ve got to start anew. It’s that tough. We were going to put a Family Dollar store in there at $3 a foot. “Family Dollar ran the crime statistics, from a 1 to 14. They called us up and said ‘Guys, we’ve never come up with a 15 before. We can’t put a location there. We can’t put our people in harm’s way’.”One of the few major employers is Campbell Soup, which has been in Camden for generations. It has taken some office space in Cherry Hill, but its corporate headquarters remains in Camden.”They’ve decided to expand their headquarters there, rather than relocating,” Klein says. “They’re sticking with the program, and supporting the city.”In terms of redevelopment, the project attracting most attention is the $500-million-plus makeover of the former Garden State Park racetrack property. The 233-acre site is being transformed into a mixed-use center with 780,000 sf of new retail in a power and lifestyle center, along with a million sf of office, 1,659 high-end residential units and a 150-room hotel.

“We have waiting list for residential units and for retail,” says Rich Fernicola, director of development for M&M Realty, the development entity working on Garden State Park (M&M stands for Jack Morris of Edgewood Properties and Joe Marino of JMP Holdings). “It will also be an economic generator for the town, county and state.” Fernicola says.

Retail tenants already open at Garden State Park include Wegmans, Bed Bath & Beyond and the Cheesecake Factory. The office and hotel portions of the redevelopment are in a preliminary design phase.

“The problem with a project of this magnitude is you have to pick your battles,” Morris says. “You phase the project, have the large portion of the shopping center built first, then the lifestyle center, then the residential and eventually you’ll get to the office and hotel. My guess is you’re still 18 to 24 months away from that.

“Cherry Hill is undergoing a renaissance,” Morris continues. “As a result of that, spec business is coming in. Some of the corporations are deciding to stay, and some other companies can be brought in.

“Camden will see a benefit from this,” he says. “Camden is going through its own little renaissance. Waterfront real estate is finite: you’re only going to get so much of it.”

Residential opportunities are available in Camden for those with pioneering spirits. “There’s been a lot of public investment in the recent past in the entire Camden waterfront as well as the light rail and the revitalization of the Victor Building,” says Anish Kumar, associate principal and director of urban design of Hillier Architecture’s Philadelphia office Kumar. “It needs a critical mass of people to call it home.”

The future of the rest of Camden County’s markets seems promising. “Everyone’s learned their lessons from the late ’80s, and ever since we’ve not made the mistake of overbuilding,” Klein says. “Rental rates have increased in the past five years, more so than they have in a decade. We finally surpassed all of those rents from the overleveraged, overbuilt late 80s and are steadily increasing.”

“You’ll see a small decrease in vacancies and a small uptick in pricing as they start to fill that space,” McGovern predicts. “You might see rates go up, maybe 50¢ per sf over the next year, and you may see vacancies go from 11% down to maybe 9%.”

“Camden County will remain relatively stable, due to limited future development opportunities,” Miller adds. “We’re going to find out over the next 12 months just how quickly they’re going to be absorbed. If I were to look into my crystal ball, I’d say Burlington County would fare just as well. The space is being absorbed as it’s built.”

Weilheimer sees development moving into less-developed areas. “Things are moving to Atlantic City because that’s where the land is available,” he concludes. “Things are moving south of Philadelphia, to Gloucester County, Cumberland County.”

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