Goals met, but not hopes

Development: As the city's Empowerment Zone program winds down, results are mixed.

December 26, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

TEN YEARS after it began with a rousing rally, Baltimore's empowerment zone program is quietly coming to a close with accomplishments that largely surpassed its goals but fell short of the high hopes some residents had for the transformation of their distressed neighborhoods.

Baltimore's selection in late December 1994 as one of six cities to receive $100 million each in federal funds plus tax breaks for businesses was hailed by political leaders as an unprecedented 10-year opportunity to spark a renaissance beyond the Inner Harbor. And it was embraced by residents of some of the city's most blighted, crime-ridden areas as the salvation of their long-neglected communities.

In the decade since, the effort to revive mostly decayed areas of East, West and South Baltimore has financed millions of dollars in loans to businesses, linked thousands of unemployed and underemployed residents to jobs and helped hundreds of first-time buyers purchase homes.

Some neighborhoods, including Harbor East, have experienced turnarounds, fueled partly by empowerment zone funds but mostly by the eastward shift of waterfront development. The renewal program has aided projects such as the Montgomery Business Park in Washington Village and the Bank One check-processing center in East Baltimore. And it has helped people such as Oyana Harris.

Last year, Harris, 22, a single mother from Poppleton in West Baltimore, completed a pharmaceutical training course funded by the empowerment zone. She works behind the prescription counter at a Walgreens in Park Heights at $9.50 an hour, $2.50 an hour more than she had made in previous jobs as a receptionist and store clerk.

"I was interested in some kind of career, but I never knew how to get a start," she says. "If I had to pay for [the course] alone, I couldn't have done it."

In the areas hit hardest, some residents and leaders had envisioned that the empowerment zone would clear their neighborhoods of open-air drug markets and blighted buildings, turning trash-laden streets into tree-lined boulevards.

They say that stories such as Harris', even multiplied many times over, have done little to fundamentally alter the character of their communities. They say that most of the new jobs are relatively low-paying and that they have seen relatively little new investment.

Harlem Park dreams

Walking through Harlem Park in West Baltimore on a recent Saturday morning, it's easy to understand their feelings. On one street corner, police were arresting two young men on drug charges; on another, yellow tape blocked off a rowhouse that had apparently collapsed, leaving one fewer boarded-up house but one more pile of rubble.

"If you look at the overall results, it is a bit of a disappointment," says former City Councilman Kwame Osayaba Abayomi, pastor of Harlem Park's Unity United Methodist Church and a past board member of the nonprofit set up to oversee the renewal effort. "There were dreams of supermarkets and stores and shopping centers. In a way, they were just that."

Jamie Jenkins, a Harlem Park resident who runs a street-side car-detailing business, says the empowerment zone did nothing about the string of boarded-up houses across the street from his. "It didn't do nothing for me," he says.

Lucille Gorham, a longtime East Baltimore community activist, sounds a similar theme.

"My final thoughts are, `What did it do? Really, What did it do?' I don't see anything that it did," says Gorham, who lives in a blighted area north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, a block from the site of the city's 271st homicide this year, which occurred Dec. 15. The area is to be demolished and reconstructed under a renewal plan centered on a biotechnology park.

"This community has a lot of underlying problems that have not been addressed - drugs, unemployment, teenagers not being educated."

Outside observers say the renewal area has produced improvements crucial to the city's future.

"To create jobs was a distinctive achievement in terms of what Baltimore needed," says Robert P. Stoker, a George Washington University political scientist who has been studying the empowerment zone. He praises the program managers for "strategic investments" and says his analysis of business data concluded that the number of jobs increased by 18 percent.

"My expectations were exceeded," Stoker says.

Calling Baltimore a "leader among empowerment zones," Donald Mains, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees federal revitalization efforts, says, "They have numbers to show that they are reaching people."

Martha Benton has seen the empowerment zone from both sides, as a resident of Douglass Homes public housing in East Baltimore and as a board member from the beginning. The renewal area has provided prospects for "a lot of folks who otherwise would not have had those opportunities," she says.

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