How cities propose to 'empower'

August 08, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

They sound at times like a cross between urban versions of the old television show "Queen for a Day" and glossy city travel brochures.

The double image of heart-rending hardship and rosy prospects is presented in the applications filed by Baltimore and other cities competing for hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal empowerment zone program: All plead poverty while touting their civic resourcefulness.

And all have no shortage of ideas for solving their problems, offering a potpourri of proposals for urban revitalization.

For example:

* Atlanta has a plan for its inner-city residents to manufacture prefabricated housing for South Africa.

* Boston has a consortium of medical institutions ready to build a support facility it says will generate $500 million in goods and services.

* Chicago wants to set up large-scale food co-ops it says could employ 500 people and capture some of the estimated $1 billion a year spent on food in the zone.

* Detroit is touting a multimillion-dollar pledge by automakers to add workers, donate vacant facilities to the city's school system and increase purchases from local minority businesses.

* Houston is stressing a commitment by local companies to provide $5 million in scholarships to disadvantaged youths.

Baltimore's application calls for the creation of a "state-of-the-art" ecological-industrial park, with a $30 million resource-recovery facility that would convert recycled tires and other solid wastes into oil.

The plant, modeled on one in Nova Scotia, would be constructed on a 1,300-acre industrial wasteland in Fairfield in South Baltimore. It would employ up to 80 zone residents at a "living wage" or better, according to the city's application. An additional 50 residents would do continual sweeps of neighborhoods, collecting illegally dumped waste to be recycled.

Besides Fairfield, Baltimore's empowerment zone encompasses the University of Maryland Medical Systems, the Sandtown-Winchester community in West Baltimore and the area around the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in East Baltimore.

Baltimore's proposal, like those of other cities, includes a variety of smaller-scale projects. Among them is a joint business venture between the University of Maryland Medical System and the quasi-governmental Council for Equal Business Opportunity Inc. The proposal envisions paying specially trained residents to provide medical transcription services previously done by outside firms.

In all, 78 cities are competing for designation as one of six federal urban empowerment zones. Each selected will receive $100 million in federal funds and tax breaks for businesses in the zones.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said at his weekly briefing Thursday that he is pushing the city's proposal with Clinton administration officials every chance he gets and that he has talked to the state's congressional delegation about joining the lobbying.

"We think we have a very good proposal, but I also know about some of the other ones. . . . It's tough," the mayor said.

Teams of federal officials have begun initial reviews of the applications for empowerment zones, the Clinton administration's major initiative for aiding distressed areas.

Winners, expected to be announced by the end of the year, will be selected by a group of 18 top federal domestic officials, chaired by Vice President Al Gore. By law, one of the six empowerment zones must be in an urban area bordering two states and another must be in a city with a population of 500,000 or less -- requirements that make Baltimore ineligible for two slots.

"One of the criterion will be whether or not the plans have a reasonable chance of success," Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development (HUD), said at a recent news conference.

HUD is not allowing public examination of the applications, some of which are "literally 5 feet of paper," Mr. Cisneros said.

But, at the request of The Sun, a half-dozen of the cities that applied provided a copy of their applications or a detailed summary.

All the documents catalog the dimensions of urban distress.

Baltimore, for example, cites a poverty rate of 41 percent among the 72,362 residents that live in its 6.8-square-mile zone. Atlanta points to a 57.4 percent poverty rate among residents of its zone; Detroit has 47 percent; Houston has 42 percent; and Pittsburgh, 41 percent.

Chicago's application minces no words about the city's problems.

"In the communities of Chicago's Empowerment Zone, poverty is intractable, unemployment is pervasive, ill health is devasting and alienation is all-encompassing for the majority of people who live there," it says.

But the applications also ooze optimism about the cities' abilities to build on successes and strengths.

Citing efforts ranging from urban homesteading to the Inner Harbor, Baltimore says its "greatest strength is to serve as a continuously evolving urban laboratory."

Boston says it is "a community of innovators and dedicated activists."

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