First empowerment zone funds at work 'Village centers' to spread word of programs offered in revitalization effort

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

Community organizers soon will be spreading the word throughout East Baltimore on programs run by the city's multimillion-dollar federal revitalization effort, while specialists concentrate on neighborhood issues concerning youth, employment and economic development.

These paid workers will be the core of the first, and largest, of six neighborhood "village centers" that will operate within Baltimore's $100 million "empowerment zone" in decayed areas of East, West and South Baltimore.

The board overseeing the city's effort has approved $307,000 to fund the first year's budget for the center, to be run by the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, for residents the empowerment zone around the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. The money will be the first empowerment zone dollars spent in the communities the zone is meant to revitalize.

Executive Director Michael V. Seipp said there is a glaring need for staffers to provide services for the 28,000 people covered by the East Baltimore village center.

"There's nobody doing first-source hire agreements. Nobody's saying, 'Let us go to businesses and secure from them agreements that they should hire from the neighborhoods,' " Mr. Seipp said by way of example.

Smaller sums, based on population, have been earmarked for previously approved centers in the Washington Village and the Sandtown-Winchester/Penn North and Mondawmin communities in West Baltimore, and for planned centers in Poppleton and Harlem Park/Lafayette on the Westside and on the waterfront around Fells Point on the east.

In all, the empowerment zone board has apportioned $800,000 a year for the centers for five years, or a total of $4 million.

Although village centers conjure up images of gathering places, Mr. Seipp said they should be thought of more as concepts.

"The model of the village center is a group of individuals representing organizations coming together and creating a vision of their community 10 years hence," Mr. Seipp said. He coordinated the city's empowerment zone application that made village centers a key link between neighborhoods and the central governing board, and a source of community-based input.

But for many communities, where cooperation has been more the exception than the rule, coming together has difficult.

"Nothing comes easy to us, except adjourning," said Leland Cooley, a West Baltimore community activist involved in creating the Poppleton village center.

Unlike the East Baltimore coalition, which was set up before the city was awarded an empowerment zone and already had an office, those involved in the Poppleton village center find themselves differing on such mundane matters as where to set up headquarters, so as not to appear to favor one neighborhood over another.

Those involved in creating the East Harbor Village Center on the waterfront in East Baltimore report a similar experience.

"It's been a long and bloody process," said Jerome Byrd, executive director of the Baltimore Harbor Endowment, a

nonprofit group involved in making improvements to public spaces.

One problem in Mr. Byrd's view: Businesses hold just three of 21 seats on an interim board for a program whose stated purpose is economic development and job creation. Others are dismayed that the quasi-public panel appointed by the mayor to oversee the revitalization effort is making key decisions on how the federal funds will be spent -- decisions that they thought the village centers would be making on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

"The village centers started out as a very powerful concept. The power's being diminished," said Kenneth Stewart, head of the Southeast Community Organization, who is involved in creating the East Harbor Village Center.

Arnold K. Sherman, a board member of the Washington Village/Pigtown Village Center, said he expects the village center to be able to get funding for some of its own ideas rather than merely choose from programs approved by the empowerment zone's central governing board. But Mr. Sherman said assembling a group from diverse elements of the community to discuss the area's future has helped fight what he calls "fragmentation."

Leonard Jackson II sees the same thing happening in the Self-Motivated Community People's Village Center, which includes the Sandtown-Winchester/Penn North/Mondawmin area.

"We've generally gotten away from real community activism," he said. "But at our last meeting, we had 60 people. There was a real spirit of cooperation."

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