Baltimore seeking empowerment zone


WASHINGTON -- Baltimore is one of 78 cities competing for six coveted federal urban empowerment zones -- and top Clinton administration officials vow that the winners of the multimillion-dollar designations will be chosen on merit, not politics.

"If one defines politics as who represents [an area] or what number of electoral votes it has, no calculation of that kind will enter into the selections," Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said at a press briefing yesterday. "They will be based on the assessment and the judgments about the quality of the plan."

"We have no electoral map overlay on this one," added Mike Espy, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cities awarded empowerment zones will be eligible for $100 million in federal grants and tax incentives for businesses located in the zones. The zones are part of a new federal aid program for impoverished areas.

The application deadline was June 30, and winning cities will be announced no later than the end of the year, officials said.

Baltimore is excluded from some empowerment zone categories. For example, by law, one of the urban zones must go to a city with a population under 500,000; another must include an urban area in two states, such as Philadelphia and Camden, N.J.

It has been widely assumed that three of the remaining four zones would go to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- the country's three largest cities in three of the most politically important states -- but Mr. Cisneros said that would not necessarily be the case.

"Does any community have a lock? The answer is 'No.' There's no community that is predetermined to have one of these empowerment zones," he insisted.

Baltimore's application covers the East Baltimore area around the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions; parts of West Baltimore, including Sandtown-Winchester; and South Baltimore's Fairfield industrial area.

Besides the 78 applicants for urban empowerment zones, there were 88 applicants for three rural zones.

Also, 214 cities and 139 rural areas applied to be named enterprise communities -- far less lucrative designations that carry grants up to $3 million. Sixty-five cities and 30 rural areas will be named enterprise communities.

Hagerstown, seeking to be named an urban enterprise community, is the only area in Maryland other than Baltimore to apply for the new anti-poverty program.

All applications will be screened by federal bureaucrats, who may visit the localities, Mr. Cisneros said.

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