WASHINGTON -- President Clinton marked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday yesterday by opening the competition for 104 inner-city and rural-development zones that are expected to receive at least $7 billion in federal funds and tax breaks.
"We have learned that unless we can rebuild our communities from the grass roots up, unless we can rebuild the institutions of a community in ways that support work and family and children, that millions and millions of Americans will be left out of the American dream," he told a largely black audience at Howard University here.
After his trip to Europe last week, Mr. Clinton was jolted back into his domestic agenda with the news of the California earthquake. Yet Mr. Clinton put a foreign spin in his commemoration of the slain civil rights leader and the struggle to overcome the disadvantages of racism and poverty.
Throughout the day he compared the challenge of creating democracy, prosperity and security facing the new democracies of eastern Europe with the lack of opportunity facing many U.S. communities.
"I have to ask myself: how are we doing on these things at home," he said, reasoning that if the United States was urging eastern Europeans to put ethnic hatred behind them and turn their religious and racial differences into strengths, "surely we must do the same here."
In earlier remarks at the White House, he lamented "the honest hard assessment" that "there is more violence, less opportunity and more destruction of family and community for the places that are really hard hit than there even was 25 years ago," when Dr. King was assassinated.
"The only way we can honor Martin Luther King's memory is to be honest about that and to ask ourselves what we can do to rebuild the communities and families of this country and to give more young people . . . a chance," he said.
His answer: the federal government will sponsor nine empowerment zones and 95 enterprise zones in depressed rural and urban areas, to be selected by national competition.
Empowerment zones will have a wider program of federal help, including increased access to social services, such as day care centers.
Enterprise zones will focus primarily on job creation through the establishment of new businesses.
Communities will be judged on their plans to rebuild their social and economic fabrics.
Those selected will benefit from federal tax breaks, easier bank credit, wage subsidies for each local worker hired and housing grants.
Officials refused to estimate how much private investment could be attracted into the selected zones, but said it would be "major, major investment."
"This is not a program that is dependent on the charity of business," said an official. "There is a very real interest for businesses to locate in these areas that goes beyond altruistic motivation. I think you will be surprised by the response."
Previous enterprise zones, run by states and cities, have produced mixed results, with private businesses frequently failing to respond to the incentives offered to them to locate in depressed inner-city areas.
Baltimore a contender
Baltimore is expected to compete with hundreds of other communities to participate in the new federal program.
"Mayor [Kurt L.] Schmoke and [Harbor Place developer] James Rouse and other private sector players are going to be able to come up with one heck of a plan," a senior administration official said. "But nobody has won up front."
The deadline for entrants in the competition is June 30, and the first winners should be announced later in the summer.
Mr. Clinton returned to the enterprise zone theme at Howard University, saying the creation of the target areas would "make a difference, that will give people at the grass roots level the power to educate and employ people who otherwise will be lost, to themselves and to the rest of us, for a generation."
He added: "That is the sort of thing that Martin Luther King would want us to do, not just to let discrimination go away but to create opportunity."
In the audience were a dozen members of Baltimore Works, a program that is part of President Clinton's national service program for youth.