Renewal efforts move at slow pace

Empowerment zone shows spot successes five years after grant

January 10, 2000|By ERIC SIEGEL | ERIC SIEGEL,SUN STAFF

Seeking a $100 million federal urban revitalization grant, Baltimore officials pledged to move with urgency in attacking blight and joblessness in some of the city's most distressed neighborhoods.

"Significant results will be swiftly produced," city officials promised the federal government in 1994.

But more than five years after being designated one of the first six cities in the federal urban empowerment zone program, Baltimore has spent only $28 million of the money, creating what many in and outside the renewal area regard as spot successes amid a sluggish pace of rebirth.

Despite figures showing progress in job creation, homeownership and crime reduction, many residents say a great deal more needs to be done to transform dilapidated sections of East, West and southern Baltimore into what then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke promised would become "neighborhoods of choice."

Lucille Gorham, a longtime community activist in the Middle East neighborhood north of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in East Baltimore, sounds a common refrain when she says she is "disappointed" in the empowerment zone but remains guardedly optimistic that it will make a significant difference.

"There are things happening, but not enough that makes a real big dent that everyone can see," Gorham said. "It's like it's slow getting started. But I wouldn't write it off just yet. I'm still hopeful that something is going to happen."

Empowerment zone officials concede that the renewal effort has gotten off the mark more slowly than had been expected, largely because of efforts to ensure community input and to spend the money carefully.

Last month, the nonprofit corporation set up to oversee the city's empowerment zone effort, which had planned to wrap up its business in a year, voted to extend its operations until the end of 2002. Empower Baltimore Management Corp. also launched a $50,000 radio and print advertising campaign aimed at residents and businesses in the empowerment zone, an acknowledgment that too few people are aware of the zone's existence, let alone its accomplishments.

Nonetheless, the chairman of Empower Baltimore Management Corp.'s board, James L. Shea, and the chief executive officer, Diane L. Bell, say the empowerment zone has reached about 70 percent of its initial five-year goal of creating 4,400 new jobs and of placing 5,000 residents in those positions and others outside the zone.

They say momentum is building, with spending reaching $10 million last year, the highest amount for a year in the empowerment zone's history. An additional $50 million has been earmarked for such programs as drug treatment, job training and literacy skills.

Noting that the empowerment zone program can take up to 10 years to disburse its money under federal law, officials say spending the funds quickly is important, but not as vital as spending it honestly and effectively.

"While a lot has been accomplished, much more can be accomplished," Shea concluded at a recent meeting of the empowerment zone board.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official overseeing the nation's empowerment zones says Baltimore's experience is not unique.

"All of the communities have been slower in spending the money than they thought they would be," said Dennis Kane, HUD's empowerment zone coordinator. "It is much harder than anyone thought to develop these areas."

"In every zone, you're going to find people who think it hasn't worked and people who feel it's worthwhile," said Kane, who called Baltimore "one of the best-run zones."

'I was relieved'

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who met with Bell and Shea shortly before he took office last month, said he came away feeling more upbeat than he thought he would.

"I was relieved," he said. "I thought it would be a mess, because I hadn't heard much about it. I'm impressed they're making investments in human capital. They're moving slowly in spending the money. The upside is they haven't squandered it."

Euphoria, not relief was the dominant emotion when Baltimore was named part of the federal empowerment zone program Dec. 20, 1994, a designation that included potentially millions of dollars in tax breaks for businesses in the zone and $100 million in federal funds.

The joy was fueled by a sense of

possibilities and triumph. Only six of the 78 cities that had applied for the grants were selected: Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia-Camden.

Authorized in 1993, the empowerment zone program was a key urban initiative of the Clinton administration, designed to help impoverished communities deal with social and economic problems.

Lofty expectations

Schmoke pronounced the grant "a big victory for our community." U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who had lobbied the Clinton administration for the city's proposal, called it "the single most important influx of federal funds this city has ever gotten."

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