Changes anger zone residents Empowerment board acted without enough input, critics contend

October 16, 1995|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

After months of debate and deliberations, the empowerment zone that is emerging in Baltimore differs in ways both profound and subtle from the book-length application that earned the city the coveted $100 million federal revitalization program nearly a year ago.

The biggest change is in the increased emphasis being put on job creation and training at the expense of big-ticket social welfare programs.

Less dramatic but nonetheless significant are the alterations within programs to foster economic development and train workers; possible redirection of millions of dollars for education -- and the apparent end to a number of smaller initiatives in the application.

With the first dollars about to be spent in the neighborhoods, the changes -- made by a 29-member quasi-public board overseeing the city's effort in a series of meetings -- have upset some community leaders within the empowerment zone. Their complaint: residents have not had enough say in the decisions.

Arlene Fisher, president of the Lafayette Square Community Association in West Baltimore, says the board, which includes only a handful of empowerment zone residents, is not representative of the community.

"One of the points of the application was that the community was supposed to take ownership," said Ms. Fisher. "The way the board is set up, it's like the gas and electric board. It's an outside group of people making decisions for the community. That's a vast gulf right there."

Arnold K. Sherman -- a board member of the Pigtown "village center," one of half a dozen entities conceived of as links between neighborhoods and the central Empower Baltimore Management Corp. -- makes much the same point.

"From the day the award was given [Dec. 20, 1994], there has not been enough communication between the village center, the empowerment zone board and the federal level," he said. "We haven't been involved."

Empowerment zone board chairman Mathias J. DeVito said he understands the views of some community members and sympathizes with them.

But Mr. DeVito, the chairman of the Rouse Co., said the board had to make a decision whether to wait for more community reaction or to develop plans and priorities to free up the federal money so it can be spent. "We opted to move forward so things could happen," he said.

In the future, he said, the board will be kept apprised of community concerns through the village centers and an 80-odd member advisory council, half of whose members live in the zone, which includes some of the city's most distressed neighborhoods in East, West and South Baltimore.

At an Oct. 5 meeting the board decided to make job creation and training the top priorities of the empowerment zone, virtually taking all but a handful of social welfare programs off the agenda.

The decision was itself a change from the application. That application envisioned roughly splitting $80 million of the $100 million in federal grants among three areas: education and job preparation, health and family development, and economic opportunities. The other $20 million was to be split among community mobilization, housing, public safety, administration and evaluation.

Now it looks like economic development will get more than a third of the entire $100 million, with at least another $15 million directed to job training.

Baltimore's application -- one of six to be selected nationwide from 78 cities -- was in response to federal guidelines that attempted to create a new urban initiative by melding the Republican idea of leveraging economic development money with tax breaks and traditional Democratic precepts of social programs.

The key new element embraced by the board this month was the expenditure of an additional $15 million for a revolving fund to provide venture capital for businesses willing to expand or locate in the empowerment zone. That is on top of money for such initiatives as loan funds and the development of new industrial areas in Fairfield and Carroll Park.

Financing for the new fund is likely to come from several programs listed in the application that have little board support or have already been scuttled. They include nearly $10 million for family development, $6.7 million for child development and $3 million for preventive health care.

Many board members expressed skepticism that spending large chunks of the $100 million on social programs would have any appreciable effect on residents and questioned how the

programs would be sustained once the empowerment zone funds ran out. By using the money to encourage business development, they argued, the city's property and income base could be increased, thereby creating a stable source of funds for social programs.

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