Federal task force on Baltimore winds down as Trump's urban policy remains uncertain

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has directed $110 million in new funding to Baltimore since last year's riots, according to a report that comes as local officials across the nation are wondering how President-elect Donald Trump will help struggling cities.

Baltimore officials on Tuesday praised the Obama administration's efforts in the city since last spring, and said they are hopeful that the close coordination that began after Freddie Gray's death will continue when Trump takes office next year.


Meanwhile, a number of African-American celebrities and sports figures — including retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and musician Kanye West — met with Trump in New York on Tuesday to discuss gang violence, urban entrepreneurship and other issues, according to those who took part.

Trump has vowed to revitalize cities, but he has offered few specifics about how he intends to do that.


After Gray's death last spring touched off riots, Baltimore became one of the first cities where President Barack Obama's administration tested a strategy that tailored federal engagement to the specific needs of a community, an effort led by a task force of federal officials. It is not clear whether Trump will continue that approach, or try something different.

"I hope that the level of engagement from the federal government to Baltimore continues in the next administration, and I will work with them to make sure that it happens," Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said in a statement. "Any time that the city gets that level of attention, it's a good thing and a success."

The report detailing the White House task force's impact is set to be released today. Task forces were also formed to focus on Detroit and the impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Baltimore officials have said the White House task force helped to accelerate redevelopment of the massive Metro West complex, expanded the city's summer jobs program and led to new funding to replace a Broening Highway bridge that has hindered heavy freight trucks leaving the port of Baltimore.

Pugh met with Trump briefly on Saturday during his trip to Baltimore to attend the Army-Navy football game. She presented him with a letter encouraging his administration to consider the city a "prime location" for federal infrastructure spending.

After meeting Tuesday with the president-elect, Lewis told reporters that he is optimistic about the Republican's vision for cities.

"He's wide open to really helping us change what hasn't been changed," said Lewis, who declined to say how he voted in last month's election. "Urban development and job creation are everything."

Trump officials did not respond to questions about the meeting.

Lewis launched a jobs and business development initiative in Baltimore earlier this year. His meeting with Trump drew criticism from some who pointed to his murder charges in 2000. Those charges were dismissed by prosecutors, and Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice.

The 45-page report lays out the results of the task force created for Baltimore last year. The group was made up of senior officials at federal agencies, and it met regularly with representatives of former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration.

The U.S. Department of Labor provided the city with a $5 million grant to launch an initiative that, so far, has enrolled 650 people in job training programs. according to the report.

The Department of Education and Department of Justice awarded more than $8 million to city schools and the Baltimore Health Department to fund violence prevention programs. Federal agencies provided $1 million in funding to continue the Safe Streets program, in which ex-offenders try to head off violence in neighborhoods.


Baltimore received a $10 million grant that will partly pay for the replacement of the Colgate Creek Bridge, a "structurally deficient" bridge built in the 1960s that links the port's Dundalk and Seagirt marine terminals. The bridge cannot handle oversized or overweight trucks.

And the task force helped expedite a General Services Administration review of development plans for the 1.1 million-square-foot Metro West complex, which has been vacant since the Social Security Administration left in 2014.

"We don't know what the next administration will do, or what approach they'll take, but we are very confident that the task force has been successful," said White House Cabinet secretary Broderick Johnson, who grew up in Baltimore. "This is a model for how to approach the relationship between federal agencies and cities."

City officials said they are hopeful that cooperation will continue, particularly as Trump looks to get an infrastructure investment proposal through Congress.

"Keeping that focus with our federal partners is important," said William H. Cole IV, the head of the Baltimore Development Corp., who has worked closely with the task force. "We're going to need federal help."

Still, Baltimore grapples with many of the same problems that it faced when Obama took office. The city's unemployment is still higher than the statewide average, and Baltimore has once again exceeded 300 homicides.

Trump, who often pointed to Baltimore on the campaign trail, has frequently promised to "turn our inner cities around" and "bring jobs back."

He announced last week that he intends to nominate retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson has opposed federal safety net programs in the past, but he told an audience this month that any suggestion he wants to end those programs is "a bunch of crap."

Observers know "absolutely nothing" about Trump's plan for cities, said Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"There's not a single indicator in the picks that he is making for his Cabinet that he is following any sort of formula," Norris said.

White House officials have stressed the coordination and communication that has occurred between the federal government and City Hall since the task force was created. They described it as not driven by politics and expressed hope it continues despite leadership changes in Washington and Baltimore.

In one of its final acts, the task force is set to brief Pugh administration officials later this week on its work.

"We haven't had a silver bullet of any kind, but what we have done is, day by day, week by week and month by month, identify individual problems and individual solutions," said Nate Loewentheil, special assistant to the president at the National Economic Council and the director of the Baltimore task force. "Cumulatively, that's made a real difference in thousands of lives."


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