Empowerment Zone Report: Building On What Is Known Mike Field ------------------ Staff Writer Baltimore's empowerment zone planners should consider "reverse commuting" strategies to help some of the city's unemployed find entry-level jobs in the suburbs and promote tax breaks for the small-to-medium-sized companies already at work in the city, according to a report prepared by graduate students in the Institute for Policy Studies. The newly published report examines past efforts to create jobs and sustainable communities in similar projects across the United States. It offers a cautionary tale of the danger of unrealistic expectations and the need for serious, long-term commitment on the part of all agencies involved. One in a series of occasional papers produced by IPS, Empowerment Zone Strategies for Baltimore: Lessons from Research and Experience contains more than 200 pages of analysis, data, charts and maps detailing problems and possible solutions to issues ranging from crime, drug use and joblessness to community infrastructure and housing stock within two of Baltimore's empowerment zone areas. The empowerment zone designation was awarded to Baltimore and five other cities last year in a competitive process in which each city had to present the federal government with a comprehensive plan of action for addressing economic and social needs within a carefully defined area. In addition to Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia/Camden won the coveted federal designation entitling them each to $100 million in aid and tax credits over a five-year period. Baltimore chose three distinct geographic areas within the city for empowerment zone activities: the largely commercial Fairfield area in south Baltimore; the residential east side area stretching from Fells Point northward to encompass the Johns Hopkins Medical Center; and the residential west side area stretching from Washington Village in southwest Baltimore through the University of Maryland to the Sandtown-Winchester area in the north. Although the empowerment zone designation was granted more than a year ago, not all the program's planned components are yet in place. A substantial amount of time has gone into planning and coordinating the effort, which seeks to leverage private, state and city funds with federal dollars for the greatest possible impact. The IPS report attempts to identify the ways in which those funds could be most effectively spent. "What we tried to do was pull together all the most relevant research and experience to show what works--and what doesn't," said IPS associate director of research Sandra Newman. Each year, Newman teaches a course to first semester students in the Institute's master's program in policy studies, in which she encourages her class to learn by working on real-life problems. "I organize the course around several timely policy problems including a key issue currently facing Baltimore," Newman said. "This past summer I talked with a number of knowledgeable Baltimoreans, and everyone agreed that the empowerment zone was the most significant policy issue confronting the city. For better or worse, this is the only urban policy that America currently has." The empowerment zone is a Clinton ad-ministration initiative that couples tax incentives with social services block grant funding to achieve long-term, sustainable community development. Widely touted as a new approach to the country's seemingly intractable urban ills, one of the first things Newman's class discovered is that most of the solutions currently being proposed have been employed in more or less similar forms in other cities on other occasions. "I would call this a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind," Newman said. "The biggest difference is mostly a matter of scale. Many states have experimented with tax incentives in the form of enterprise zones. And some have even combined economic development activities with supportive services for residents--the feature of the empowerment zone legislation touted as new and unique." If similar programs have been tried in the past, then studying them should prove helpful in predicting which efforts are likely to achieve the best results, say planning experts. "In some cases, not much was known in a systematic way of what had been tried before and what worked," Newman said. "But as important, no one had pulled all of this information together in one document." One of the findings in the report was that past experiments with tax incentives have been effective in attracting and supporting small-to-medium-sized businesses, but generally ineffective in luring the kind of large manufacturing operations that once employed tens of thousands of city residents. This finding could be particularly significant for an empowerment zone city such as New York, which, at least initially, forecast substantial job growth through the addition of just such companies. Foremost among empowerment zone goals in every city is the creation of sustainable employment opportunities among residents. Many urban ills would wither and disappear, it is widely held, if inner city residents could find steady, full-time employment. The problem has long been considered a matter of bringing jobs to the people, but lately some have begun to suggest that the solution lies in bringing people to the jobs. "The most promising program we identified was the concept of reverse commuting," said student David Marks, who worked on the needs assessment and job access sections of the report. "It's a fairly new idea, pioneered in Chicago, in which the inner city poor are transported to the high growth suburban job markets." Marks and his classmates identified five main centers in the Baltimore area currently creating a surplus of entry level jobs: the BWI Airport corridor, Hunt Valley, White Marsh, Owings Mills and Harford County. However several obstacles, including distance and a historical reluctance on the part of suburban employers to hire city employees, have prevented the inner city unemployed from filling those jobs. One advantage to mobility strategies such as reverse commuting is that they produce immediate results. While job training and job creation are long-term projects requiring capital investment and careful planning, reverse commuting provides employment to qualified workers almost as soon as the programs are established. "We're largely talking about service sector entry level employment which typically enables workers to sustain themselves with a degree of job security, but doesn't offer much in the way of long-term earnings growth or employee benefits," Marks said. "For the moment, this is the best we're going to be able to get for employees who typically have little or no job history." Research suggests that job training will have to be a component of any successful program, but not all job training efforts are alike. "We have found that these programs need to be closely tied to the local labor network," said student Lisa Plimpton, who worked on the demographics and job training chapters of the report. "Past studies seem to show that on-the-job training and occupational classroom training work best for adults, while the focus with young people should be successful completion of the high school diploma. Dropouts and people who have received their GEDs simply don't do as well." Perhaps not surprisingly, the programs that tend to produce the best results are often those that involve one-on-one counseling and close individual case management. "We found that the employment programs that cost more tend to work better," Plimpton said. "The balanced approach advocated in the empowerment zone process is a good thing. There needs to be a coordinated effort between job creation and job training for either to succeed." Although the report offers a catalog of urban ills and only a handful of programs that have experienced limited success, Newman and her students tend to agree the need cannot be ignored. "We have to go on trying," Newman said. "This is a very big and complex problem. If it were easy to solve we would have done so already. I think we were all encouraged that of the many strategies that have been tried, some are demonstrably more effective than others. The challenge is to build on what is already known." "A review of what has been tried in the past is quite different from diving into something new that hasn't been tried yet," agreed student Chris Whaling. "In doing our research we met plenty of people out there with vision and enthusiasm for what can be done. This report is only a guide, showing what has and hasn't worked in the past. I hope it will help this project find the path to success."
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