Corporate Report on Cities: Not Tough Enough

April 18, 1995|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- If a donkey flies, is it niggling to ask how high?

That is the question raised by the well-meaning -- but not very forceful -- report about America's afflicted inner cities just issued by the prestigious, CEO-led Committee for Economic Development.

In any season, it's tough for big corporations to deal with struggling neighborhoods.

First of all, a crowd that reveres the capitalist machine has to admit it doesn't work well for everyone all the time. And to acknowledge that existing corporate investment partnerships in inner city housing and supermarkets aren't sufficient to reverse the tide of decline.

Second, in the culture of the '90s, CEOs accustomed to issuing commands from executive suites have to recognize the failure of ''top-down'' solutions. The lesson of the times is obvious: Whether the problem is inner-city joblessness or dilapidated housing or crime, neither corporate minds nor government direction can produce ''one size fits all'' solutions.

The CED's new report, its first pronouncement on urban policy in 13 years, admits that a good chunk of solutions for urban problems will have to come from the humblest among us -- not master planners, not social workers, but residents of struggling neighborhoods and the self-help groups they form, such as community development corporations.

Government, says the CED, should tailor its programs to neighborhoods -- not the other way around.

For many folks laboring out in the urban vineyards, this is hardly news. A number of sensitive corporations began administering corrective capitalism by investing in grassroots projects in the early '80s. The fruit is being harvested: billions of dollars worth of housing. Government is still a partner in these neighborhoods -- but just a partner, not the dictator.

So if the new way is neighborhoods first, why is the CED announcing the obvious, so late in time?

Maybe because so much of corporate America looks the other way. Other groups of major corporations -- the Business Roundtable or the Conference Board, for example -- are largely silent on neighborhood revitalization. At least the CED is back on the subject, pointing to the need for vastly increased support for community development corporations and their reconstruction efforts.

My problem is that the CED donkey is still flying much too close to the ground. It recognizes the need for neighborhood reinvestment, but doesn't commit itself to do what it does best: strategic planning.

Harsh reality is overlooked: Corporate giving in America dipped from $7.3 billion to $5.9 billion between 1989 and 1993 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Even by a generous definition, only 10 percent of corporate giving is directed to community development.

Also overlooked: corporate America's complicity in neighborhoods' plight.

Example: There's not a word in the CED's report about the debilitating job losses that corporations have inflicted on American cities and their poor people by their conscious decisions to locate new plants and offices on the far exurban fringe of metropolitan regions.

You can argue whether executives chose greenfield sites for easier access to interstates, or cheap land, or to escape black and Latino urban work forces, or to locate near their own suburban estates. No matter why, the effect has been the same: devastating economic loss to inner-city workers who find themselves unable to reach the new edge city jobs.

The Bank of America has just made history with a ringing condemnation of sprawl development's cost in foul air, lost open space and ''abandonment of people and investments in older communities.'' But not the CED report.

One might have expected a challenge to leading corporations, region by metropolitan region, to get together and make some hard agreements on how to create production facilities atop the deserted ''brownfields'' that now dot inner-city America, or to assemble land for office parks in the close-in suburbs instead of the outer rural periphery.

But there's no such challenge. Indeed, the report shows almost zero awareness that the urban issue now plays across ''citistate'' regions, aging suburbs as well as inner cities, and will require real metropolitan solutions in which business (which itself operates regionally) plays a vital role.

There's no suggestion to level the regional fiscal playing field so that struggling inner cities and older suburbs can build a competitive tax base. There's no pitch for corporations to use their ''reinvented'' management skills to help hard-pressed governments or non-profits accomplish more with less money.

The CED executives do deserve credit for confronting the weapons makers in their own ranks, demanding an end to the ''national plague of cheap handguns and assault weapons'' including action to ''take firearms out of the hands of juveniles and criminals.'' To their credit, the CEO leaders also bemoan redlining in financial markets, employment discrimination and inferior local education.

But they are painfully short on solutions. They don't criticize the ''Contract with America'' gang that seems hellbent on eviscerating even the most modest federal urban aids. And they don't urge their corporate brethren to focus their collective skills on the problem of a society separating at the seams.

This report -- like corporate America's entire role in troubled urban America -- needs more altitude.

Neal R. Peirce writes regularly on urban issues.

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