Norcross, Cooper to launch citywide Camden youth sports plan

By ALLISON STEELE, staff writer

George E. Norcross III, the politically powerful head of Cooper University Hospital’s board of trustees, will on Wednesday announce the creation of the Camden Health and Athletic Association, a nonprofit organization that will provide financial support to sports leagues throughout the city and fund new teams.

The CHAA will be funded by an initial investment of $1 million from the Cooper Foundation, the charitable arm of Cooper University Health Care, and the Norcross Foundation and AmeriHealth New Jersey, Norcross said.

The organization will serve as an umbrella for the city’s youth sports groups, providing centralized help with logistics such as buying uniforms and maintaining playing fields, as well as fund-raising efforts.

Plans to launch the CHAA have been underway for months, and members of the Cooper Foundation have reached out to the city’s community activists for input. A number of community leaders have already said they will partner with the CHAA and are expected to appear at the official announcement Wednesday at Cooper Hospital in Camden alongside Norcross, local politicians, and former professional athletes.

The announcement is a step in Norcross’ ongoing efforts to remake the city’s image and the latest sign that the millionaire insurance executive is shaping the day-to-day lives of many Camden residents.

Camden residents sometimes say they are skeptical or fearful of Norcross’ intentions, but a number of community leaders have pledged their support to the CHAA. The city of 77,000 is in the midst of a crime wave, with more than twice as many homicides thus far in 2016 as at this time last year, and many of those involved with youth sports say afterschool and summer programs are the best ways to reach children who are most vulnerable to the pull of the streets.

Rashaan Hornsby, president of the Centerville Simbas youth football league, said that a centralized athletic association was long overdue and that it would be a good opportunity for Camden as long as local leaders were not shut out.

“As long as we’re continued to be included at the table, as long as we all still have a voice, I’m in,” he said. “As long as they’re not telling us what to do, I’m thinking it’ll work out really well.”

In an interview Tuesday at Conner Strong & Buckelew, his Marlton insurance brokerage firm, Norcross said the CHAA would not take over operations of the organizations that work with it, such as the city’s current football, baseball, and soccer leagues. Instead, he said, it will seek to streamline processes such as buying equipment and acquiring practice space from city parks or facilities, help teams expand, and fund new programs such as hockey and football.

“We want to give them the tools to take these organizations to the next level,” Norcross said. “Our message to all of them is tell us what we can do. We’re here to help facilitate.”

Camden has several thriving youth sports programs, but most exist independently and receive little financial support from the city. Children have played football on fields without lights or on a softball diamond where the outfield is double-booked for soccer games. When a Centerville Simbas team was selected to play in a televised game at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, players and coaches raised money for plane and hotel costs by selling doughnuts and collecting donations from motorists at traffic intersections.

The new organization, which Norcross said he hoped would be up and running this fall, will hire a full-time athletic director and other staff to oversee administrative tasks. It will be governed by a board of trustees, Norcross said.

He said the organization would seek to involve city households in an effort to draw in parent volunteers. He also said he hoped to waive the modest registration fees that many city leagues charge, at least for the first year.

Often described as the state’s most powerful political figure, Norcross wields influence that can be seen in Camden’s schools and police, as well as in the large corporations that are moving to town and in the plans for a massive waterfront development that Norcross’ friends have pledged to build.

In 2011 Norcross pushed for the disbanding of the city police department in favor of a county-led police force that he said would put more officers on the streets, a plan that county and city officials later carried out.

A 2012 law sponsored by his brother, then-State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), enabled creation of charter-public hybrid “Renaissance” schools in Camden, one of which now bears the Norcross name. Donald Norcross, now a member of the U.S. House, also championed state legislation that has used multimillion-dollar tax incentives to lure large companies to Camden, several of which have ties to Norcross.

Norcross is also a former part-owner of the Inquirer’s parent company.

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