Building New Coalitions to Combat Inner-City Depression

May 16, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Within weeks, official Washington will be deluged with community applications to snare the benefits of 9 empowerment-zone and 95 enterprise-community designations voted by Congress last year.

As the Clinton administration then gets to work on judging the entries, it's likely politicians and the media, as usual, will dwell on the old politics -- Who will win or lose? Is the competition ''wired'' for favored cities? How many federal dollars will the winners scoop up?

The real story is about a different politics: the Clintonites' strategy to get cities and counties to tap the will to revitalize even their poorest communities, and to evoke new city and regional alliances to support those neighborhoods.

It is not the Jack Kemp vision of enterprise zones -- throw out a bunch of tax incentives and see how many businesses then want to set up shop in graffiti-smeared, crime-plagued areas. Nor is it Lady Bountiful liberalism -- show how you can spend Washington's money.

Instead, Washington is challenging applicant communities to show buy-in from a broad range of partners -- grass-roots community groups, local governments, health and social-service agencies, environmental organizations, churches, businesses, universities.

Second, the partners must agree on a strategic plan to create job opportunities, not only directly but by fostering communities with safe streets, decent housing, social services, clean air and water and improved schools -- places that can attract jobs.

Finally, if communities will commit themselves to reaching performance-based benchmarks of improvement, then Washington will give them preference in waiving burdensome federal regulations. Richest benefits will flow to the empowerment zones (six urban, three rural), less to the enterprise communities (65 urban, 30 rural).

Each empowerment zone is supposed to get $100 million in social-service block grants and employer tax credits for new jobs created. But enterprise communities get only $3 million in outright benefits.

Faced with such an unconventional challenge, a number of communities have been flailing around in indecision as the June 30 application deadline nears. Some (Atlanta and DeKalb County, for example) are engaged in nasty political disputes over zone boundaries.

But there's also been a remarkable outpouring of interest in the ++ competition. Even places, such as Manchester, New Hampshire, where poor neighborhoods never got much attention before are getting ready to apply. An overflow crowd of 2,500 local officials and activists, many intent on applying, flooded into the administration's National Housing and Community Development Conference in Washington March 30.

Some places seem truly to grasp the spirit and potential of the new deal the feds are offering. With the bait of empowerment-zone designation, and anxious to bolster freshman Mayor Dennis Archer, the big institutions of the Detroit region have produced a startling set of initiatives.

A consortium of lead universities -- Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan -- have agreed to focus resources of multiple departments, including their schools of business development, urban studies and architecture, on Detroit's zone, and to keep up the effort whether Detroit ''wins'' in the competition or not.

Leading Detroit foundations, including Kresge and Hudson-Webber, have put together a $10 million fund to provide operating assistance to community-based organizations. A $500,000 economic development training institute is included.

Detroit Renaissance -- the chief executives of the region's 50 largest businesses, including GM, Chrysler and Ford -- are launching a community development bank somewhat akin to Chicago's famed South Shore Bank, aiming for almost $50 million in capitalization.

Another Detroit Renaissance project will be a ''collaboration and innovation center.'' Pushed by Renaissance director Robert Keller, who formerly headed the Greater Baltimore Committee, the center will include rooms for collaboration-building sessions among citizen, business and government stakeholders who've often been at each other's throats. The facility will have one room for computer-assisted negotiations and telecommunications capacity to confer and compare notes with groups in other cities.

Most cities' efforts are more modest. Los Angeles considers it something of a miracle that the city bureaucracy has made common cause with the Coalition of Neighborhood Developers, a group of 56 grass-roots organizations. This first-ever planning combine of African-American, Korean and Latino organizations, with backing from the Irvine Foundation, spent a year forming a common neighborhood revitalization strategy, ranging from homeownership, jobs and economic development to services for youth.

None of Washington's reinvented, user-friendly ways of running the zone competition means picking the winners won't be contentious. The process could also encounter huge snags when federal departments begin waiving regulations that hamper local governments in the zones.

But for now, the competition reminds us that every citistate region has all the resources it needs to revive its depressed neighborhoods -- if it will only mobilize them. Just a dozen or two cities emulating Detroit's verve in building new coalitions to combat poverty and inner-city depression would justify the whole effort.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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