Zones plan OK'd


Federal officials have given Baltimore the go-ahead to spend millions of dollars in empowerment zone funds on business development, job training and drug treatment programs.

The approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development means that the first of the programs to revitalize some of the city's most distressed neighborhoods could be in place by late summer or early fall, Diane Bell, interim president of the Empower Baltimore Management Corp., said yesterday.

HUD's endorsement of the city's plans was "exciting," Ms. Bell said, adding, "That's an understatement."

In giving its approval, HUD noted that Baltimore is the first of the six federal urban empowerment zones to have its spending proposals certified.

Besides Baltimore, empowerment zones were awarded in December to Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia/Camden, N.J. The zones include $100 million in federal block grant funds and tax breaks for businesses that could be worth an estimated $225 million.

"Congratulations on being the first Empowerment Zone to complete . . . this phase of the program," Roy O. Priest, director of HUD's empowerment zone task force, said in a letter to city officials. "We look forward to following the results of your community's planning efforts over the next several years."

Specifically, Baltimore was given approval to spend $14 million on a variety of business development and social programs, officials said.

The money represents funding for the first two years of $40 million worth of programs approved by Baltimore's empowerment zone board over five years.

The programs range from providing day care subsidies to residents to establishing a center that would aid existing businesses and encourage entrepreneurship. Other programs would help transport zone residents to jobs outside the zone and encourage construction of middle-class rental housing.

The board has yet to decide how it wants to spend the additional $60 million in federal funds.

Although the broad spending plans have been approved, officials still must decide how to implement the programs and develop bid proposals, Ms. Bell said.

Funds for the first of a half-dozen "village centers" -- envisioned as links between the communities to the empowerment zone office and as centers of computerized job listings and training opportunities -- could begin flowing in late summer or "very early fall," she said.

That center would be the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, which includes the area around the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Plans call for each of the centers to get $100,000 a year to pay for overhead and hire staff to mobilize residents for anti-crime and other community efforts.

In addition to the neighborhoods surrounding Hopkins' medical institutions, Baltimore's empowerment zone includes Fairfield in South Baltimore and Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park and the areas around the University of Maryland Medical Systems in West Baltimore.

Together, the areas that make up the empowerment zone have approximately 70,000 residents, or about a 10th of the city's population, of whom 41 percent live in poverty.

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