Taking a Look at the "New Politics" of Empowerment Zones

By Peirce, Neal R. | Nation's Cities Weekly, May 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

Taking a Look at the "New Politics" of Empowerment Zones


Peirce, Neal R., Nation's Cities Weekly


Within weeks, official Washington will be deluged with community applications to snare the benefits of nine empowerment zones and 95 enterprise community designations voted by Congress last year.

As the Clinton administration then gets to work on judging the entries, it's likely politicians and the media, as usual, will dwell on the old politics--who will win or lose?, is the competition "wired" for favored cities?, how many federal dollars will the winners scoop up?

The real story, however, is about a different politics: the Clintonites' strategy to get cities and counties to tap the will to revitalize even their poorest communities, and to evoke new city and regional alliances to support those neighborhoods.

It is not the Jack Kemp vision of enterprise zones--throw out a bunch of tax incentives and see how many businesses then want to set up shop in graffiti-smeared, crime-plagued areas. Nor is it Lady Bountiful liberalism --show how you can spend Washington's money.

Instead, Washington is challenging applicant communities to show buy-in from a broad range of partners--grass-roots community groups, local governments, health and social service agencies, environmental organizations, churches, businesses, universities.

Second, the partners must agree on a strategic plan to create job opportunities, not only directly but by fostering communities with safe streets, decent housing, social services, clean air and water and improved schools--places that can attract jobs.

Finally, the feds are saying, if communities will commit themselves to reaching performance-based benchmarks of improvement, then Washington will give them preference in waiving burdensome federal regulations. Richest benefits will flow to the empowerment zones (six urban, three rural), less to the enterprise communities (65 urban, 30 rural).

Each empowerment zone is supposed to get $100 million in social service block grants and employer tax credits for new jobs created. But enterprise communities get only $3 million in outright benefits.

Faced with such an unconventional challenge, a number of communities have been flailing around in indecision as the June 30 application deadline nears. Some (Atlanta and DeKalb County, for example) are engaged in nasty political disputes over zone boundaries.

But there's also been a remarkable outpouring of interest in the competition. Even places, such as Manchester, N.H., where poor neighborhoods never got much attention before are getting ready to apply. An overflow crowd of 2,500 local officials and grass- roots activists, many intent on applying, flooded into the administration's National Housing and Community Development Conference in Washington March 30.

Some places seem truly to grasp the spirit and potential of the new deal the feds are offering. …

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