Job training takes priority in empowerment zone Board votes to put social programs on back burner

October 06, 1995|By ERIC SIEGEL | ERIC SIEGEL,SUN STAFF

Setting the tone for how it plans to spend $100 million in federal funds, the board overseeing Baltimore's empowerment zone revitalization effort voted yesterday to emphasize job training over social welfare in some of the city's most distressed neighborhoods.

In seeking to put an end to a long-running debate, the board

voted to put its highest priorities on an array of programs to create jobs and train residents of the empowerment zone in East and West Baltimore.

Drug treatment, a new home-ownership initiative and the funding of community "village centers" linking neighborhoods with the quasi-public corporation overseeing the grant were the only non-economic programs to rate highly among board members.

Among the 64 programs given the lowest ratings by board members were a proposal to market zone neighborhoods as attractive places to live and welcome new residents and another proposal to promote community health and establish community-based inspection boards to review housing code violations.

Though the board could change its decision, the low priority of those programs makes it unlikely they will receive funding.

"I think this gives us a sense of what we're all feeling," Mathias J. DeVito, empowerment zone board chairman, said at the conclusion of yesterday's 3 1/2 -hour meeting. "I think we've made tremendous progress in reaching a consensus."

Some board members were less positive in their reaction.

Karen Carter, head of Concerned Citizens of Poppleton in West Baltimore, called the board's vote a "mixed bag."

She said she was pleased the board voted to put a high priority on drug treatment programs, but expressed disappointment that the board had taken a dimmer view of funding a community organizing program to help mobilize communities.

"That's empowering the community," she said.

But board member Bernard Siegel, president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, said he voted against many social programs not because he thought they weren't important, but because he felt that spending empowerment money on them wouldn't make much difference.

"The most we could spend on some of these programs would be a drop in the bucket compared to what's being spent now," he said.

Among the economic programs given a high priority by the board were $1 million for a high-risk capital loan fund to provide seed capital for small businesses, $3 million for a business empowerment center to provide technical assistance and $15 million for a fund to provide loans and equity investments to zone businesses.

Also given a high priority was $186,000 to plan a new, ecologically oriented park in Fairfield in South Baltimore and $1.2 million to create an industrial park in southwest Baltimore.

The job training program for zone residents is budgeted at $11 million during the five-year life of the empowerment zone, including $3 million over the next 14 months.

Combined spending on these programs would amount to about 60 percent of the empowerment zone's $36 million budget through December 1996.

One previously approved program that got short shrift from the zone's board was $365,000 for a reverse-commuting project to get residents from the zone in East Baltimore to jobs in surrounding counties.

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