An important lesson is contained in Baltimore's successful bid to win an empowerment zone, with $100 million in federal grants and $250 million in potential tax credits for employers creating new jobs. The city triumphed, because an alliance of more than 500 leaders representing the private sector, non-profits and community groups was quickly assembled and worked well together.
We urge that this alliance now continue and go beyond what is stated in the empowerment zone application documents. In particular, we call on this partnership to help the city lure more job-producing companies and residents in all income levels to Baltimore.
While the potential impact of the zone should not be belittled, it is no panacea. In fact, the empowerment zone alone is not even a partial answer to Baltimore's fiscal troubles which are caused by a serious loss of middle-class population and well-paying jobs. This decline can be reversed only if the number of both jobs and taxpayers begins increasing again.
The momentum created by the forthcoming empowerment zone economic activity should enable the city to start doing both. The more varied each of the zone's neighborhoods is by income and race, the better is the chance for significant economic impact and improvement.
In this respect, the forthcoming empowerment zone activity could be a real boost to two neighborhoods in particular. They are the depressed area around the Johns Hopkins medical institutions and Pigtown, just across the Martin Luther King Boulevard west of Oriole Park.
A major goal around Hopkins is to use the empowerment zone as an opportunity to build 500 owner-occupied houses within three years, each selling for about $80,000. Those probably would be marketed primarily to hospital or city employees. But because the area's links to Fells Point also will be strengthened, planners believe more expensive waterfront properties there might become attractive to doctors.
In Pigtown, an area that is currently overwhelmingly poor, the empowerment zone happens at a time when new housing in all price ranges is on the drawing board. Ryland, a leading national homebuilder, is scheduled to start construction of 113 market-rate townhouses near the B&O Railroad Museum in the spring, strengthening existing middle-class developments nearby. Meanwhile an alliance of churches is building low-income housing.
The key in all this is providing jobs -- and good jobs.
Or, as Kimberly Bares, of Tri-Churches Housing put it, "If we don't have jobs and have jobs that pay people more than the minimum wage, then we can't build or sell houses."