Change comes slowly

Urban Chronicle

Revitalization: As a 10-year program to revive distressed neighborhoods comes to an end, its director says it may be difficult to measure the success.

January 22, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

ELEVEN months and a little less than $10 million.

That's the amount of time and money left for Baltimore's federally funded empowerment zone revitalization effort.

Awarded with great fanfare Dec. 20, 1994, the 10-year program to reinvigorate some of the city's most distressed areas included $100 million in federal grants and a variety of tax breaks.

Now, as the program quietly winds down, Diane Bell, chief executive officer of Empower Baltimore Management Corp. for all but its first few months, would like to see the effort given its due - for working in some of the city's neediest neighborhoods and for beginning to make a difference.

"I would like people to really understand and know where these communities came from and where they are along the pathways of change for the better," she said in a recent interview in her office.

Over the years, most observers and residents have pointed to the modest success of the empowerment zone in reviving distressed areas of East, West and South Baltimore.

A little over a year ago, The Sun compared data from 1990 and 2000 for the census tracts that make up the empowerment zone. On the positive side, the data showed that the percentage of people in poverty in the empowerment zone declined while median household income and homeownership increased. On the negative side, it showed that population declined at a far greater rate than the citywide average and that unemployment rose.

The article included the caveat that any conclusion to be drawn from the data was tentative, since the empowerment zone programs were scheduled to continue beyond the 2000 count.

It may be impossible to measure, with precision, the effects of the empowerment zone. For example, the empowerment zone includes neighborhoods around the Johns Hopkins medical complex. If they show improvement five and 10 years from now, how much of that would be because of the empowerment zone, and how much because of the planned biotech park?

Bell, 52, is more positive than many about the the empowerment zone, but she's hardly Pollyannaish. "I think we have done some things incredibly well," she said. "I think there are areas we could have improved on."

Among the former: customized job training in which residents are taught skills tailored to certain businesses, for which about $7.5 million was earmarked and several hundred employment opportunities created. "We know that gives people the greatest chances to increase their wages and get out of poverty," Bell said.

Among the latter: a fund for residents to fix up the outsides of their houses, which never caught on with homeowners wary of being burdened with additional obligations. "It hasn't moved for about a year," she said. "We have about $300,000 sitting in that fund. We're looking to move that money."

Bell said empowerment zone money has played a role, albeit a largely unpublicized one, in many high-profile projects, ranging from a short-term $4.5 million loan to the developers of the Montgomery Business Park in Southwest Baltimore to a $110,000 grant to help staff a nonprofit group to oversee the biotech park.

While she insisted "the money's been invested wisely," she said much more will be needed to help revive the long-neglected areas that make up most of the empowerment zone. "One hundred million dollars is not enough," she said. "Never was."

Still, Bell said she expects the legacy of the empowerment zone to linger past the end of this year.

Fifteen million dollars in loans to businesses - auto repair shops, construction companies, restaurants and others - will eventually come due, providing additional capital to be lent out, or redirected toward additional job training. An empowerment zone-supported start-up, the Harbor Bank Community Development Corp., will also make loans and provide assistance.

A recently drawn housing strategy for the Poppleton community on the west side could become a blueprint for change. "It's not likely to happen before we go away," she said. "It will materialize in two to four years. You understand stuff happens over time. That's the thing the general public doesn't understand."

And Washington Village in southwest, one of a half-dozen empowerment zone village centers, could become the next hot city neighborhood.

"That's an area that's going to take off," Bell said. "It's going to be a different area in the next few years. People are going to say they discovered it. Nobody will remember the seeds were sown in December 1994."

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