THE SUSPICIONS began in January when what was supposed to be a 15-member board for Empower Baltimore grew to 29, still with only seven representatives from community groups. Outnumbered, the community leaders saw their dreams millions of dollars in Empowerment Zone funds for well-intended social programs fade into oblivion. While significant sums will be spent on drug treatment and day care, the expanded board will put most Empowerment Zone money into job creation and training.
That is as it should be. Many of the empowerment zone neighborhoods are beset by drug abuse and crime. But the best way to fight those scourges is to provide jobs that reduce the number of people engaging in criminal activities. That said, it is also important for the empowerment zone board -- its membership now mostly top city officials and representatives of local foundations, educational institutions and businesses -- not to use that strength of numbers to force its will.
The Empowerment Zone concept is based on the belief that people at the grass-roots level should decide how federal dollars can best make their neighborhoods better places to live. That means more than just having community activists on the board. It means giving weight to their arguments. They are the ones who will be affected most by the outcome. Time must be taken to build the trust necessary to convince them that job creation can occur and have a more lasting impact on their communities.
As pointed out by Sun reporter Eric Siegal, if all $100 million of the city's Empowerment Zone grant were spent on the 28,000 people in the zone population classified as poor, it would only amount to $3,600 a person. If the funds were split among all 70,000 of the zone residents, each would only receive $1,400.
The bulk of the empowerment funds, plus another $250 million in tax incentives, will be spent to entice companies to depressed neighborhood. Some are balking at the tax break requirement that a third of their employees must live in the zone. Their point is valid. After all, just having viable businesses in these neighborhoods will have a positive economic impact. But emphasis must remain on providing good-paying jobs to neighborhood residents, even if companies have to train them to
do the work.