Monday, May 14, 2001

Promises for poor neighborhoods unfilled


New director ready to move on 3-year-old plans

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bright promises filled the pages of a plan to raise up nine of Cincinnati's poorest neighborhoods.

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Harold Cleveland, CEO of Cincinnati Empowerment Corp., in front of the E-Commerce Incubator Center at 791 E. McMillan.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        Back in 1998, some of the Tristate's largest corporations pledged they would give residents of those neighborhoods access to hundreds of jobs. They also pledged millions of dollars in grants and loans to rebuild the depressed areas.

        Three years and one race riot later, the nine neighborhoods — most of them predominantly African-American — are still the city's poorest, and the plan hasn't been put into action.

        “For whatever reason, it hasn't happened,” says Harold Cleveland, who in January took over as chief executive officer of Cincinnati Empowerment Corp.

        The poor results, says Mr. Cleveland and others, have as much to do with a government-created group's initial troubles as they do with the communities' lack of transportation to jobs, even if they're offered.

        Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. — formed to be a conduit between the powerful corporations and the poor people in the neighborhoods — will now ask those businesses to make good on their initial pledges.

        “I was taught when you make a promise, you keep it,” Mr. Cleveland says.

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        The failure doesn't belong solely to the corporations, he adds.

        The empowerment zone group has been mired in controversy and administrative problems. The chief executive's job, for example, went unfilled for two years, at one point leading former City Council member Charlie Winburn to call for the zone's board to resign.

        The combination has led to a lack of results. The zone's 2000 annual report noted that officials had projected 500 residents would be “guaranteed access to employment oppor tunities.” By the time the report was filed, the empowerment group had sent no job candidates to area businesses.

        And no business called empowerment zone board or staff members seeking employees.

        The group finally chalked up a victory a few weeks ago. It was part of the coalition of business and political leaders that announced a $2.2 million summer jobs program that intends to employ 3,000 teens.

        But Mr. Cleveland still has his eye on promises made by corporations in 1998 as part of the city's application with the federal government to become an empowerment zone — a Department of Housing and Urban Development program that injects millions into economically depressed areas to battle poverty.

        The businesses bolstered the city's application by pledging more than 2,600 job opportunities, contracts, grants, loans, donated services and various forms of community support to residents and businesses in Avondale, Over-the-Rhine, West End, Walnut Hills, Corryville, Evanston, Mount Auburn, Queensgate and Clifton Heights-Fairview.

        The business districts in Over-the-Rhine and Walnut Hills — where plywood and spray-painted messages have replaced store windows and signs — were hit hardest in the riots.
       

Powerful backers
               The city included its own promise of $208.2 million worth of services and funds over 10 years as part of the empowerment zone's application.

        The city has funded various programs in these neighborhoods since 1998, but neither Mr. Cleveland nor city officials are certain if funding levels matched the amounts promised.

        Companies that pledged support to the zone were among Cincinnati's most powerful and philanthropic. Nearly three dozen companies - including corporate heavyweights like Procter & Gamble, Kroger Co., Federated and Toyota - promised jobs and other support.

        Several of those corporations contacted recently say they'll stand by commitments outlined in the empowerment zone application. That's in addition to pursuing other civic programs.

        For instance, Cincinnati Bell promised qualified people living in zone neighborhoods would be given interviews for an estimated 100 new jobs each year.

        A company spokeswoman didn't know how many zone residents were interviewed. Cincinnati Bell doesn't keep those records, and no candidate was referred by empowerment zone staff.

        “They have not sent us anyone directly,” says Libby Korosec, Cincinnati Bell spokeswoman. “We remain committed and available to work with them to pursue the initiatives that are a priority.”

        Yet Cincinnati Bell made good on its other pledge to complete $3.5 million in network improvements, bringing high-speed Internet connections to the zone's neighborhoods.

        Bell also will rewire the West End's Taft High School into a technology center, helping train future workers and groom new consumers.

        In the wake of last month's riots, Ms. Korosec agrees that it's an ideal time for empowerment zone staff and area corporations to work together and turn promised jobs into real opportunity.

        Cinergy was unable to come up with records showing whether it met its goal of giving “priority consideration” to contracting with empowerment zone businesses that provide services and supplies, a spokesman says. But the company is willing to help.

        Fifth Third Bancorp partnered with P&G, United Way and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation to fund economic development in Walnut Hills and two neighborhoods outside the empowerment zone — Northside and College Hill.

        Fifth Third's $500,000 contribution helped start a revitalization plan for an area devastated by rioters — McMillan and Gilbert in Walnut Hills.

        “It was frustrating to see some of the things we were working on to suffer damage or setbacks,” says Lawra Baumann, vice president of Fifth Third Foundation. “But it has redoubled our commitment to continue to find ways to improve the neighborhoods.”
       

Difficult beginning
               Mr. Cleveland acknowledges that part of the blame goes to his organization's dif ficult beginning and federal budget cuts.

        This year is the first time the zone has been fully funded. It was expected to bring $100 million to Cincinnati over 10 years, but Republicans in Congress restricted spending to about $3 million in 1998 and 1999 together.

        Two people were hired over the past two years to head the empowerment zone, which opened for business in January 1999. One candidate turned down the job, and the other was rejected after a thorough background check revealed problems. (The zone's board also rejected a third candidate, Stanley Broadnax, a former city health commissioner convicted of drug charges.)

        There was wrangling between City Hall and the zone's board over how many members it should have. The volunteer board last year agreed to cut its size by a third — from 33 to 21 members.

        The smaller board hired Mr. Cleveland, former president of the nonprofit Cincinnati Union Bethel. Since assuming his position in January, Mr. Cleveland has hired three staff members, established an Avondale office and is ready to leverage a $12.3 million budget to help businesses and residents in the nine neighbor hoods.

        “We're ready to do business,” Mr. Cleveland says.

        Cincinnati was one of three Ohio cities to get approval for such a zone. But the zones in Columbus and Cleveland have been operating longer than Cincinnati's. The Columbus group, for instance, has contracted with outside training agencies to groom people for corporate jobs. About 50 people are being trained currently.

        “We are a little further down the road” than Cincinnati, says Jonathan Beard, president and chief executive officer of Columbus Compact Corp.

        Nevertheless, Mr. Beard says it also has been difficult to get Columbus businesses to hire zone residents.

        “We're trying to develop a better pipeline between the neighborhoods” and employers, Mr. Beard says.
       

Areas impoverished
               Most of Cincinnati's empowerment neighborhoods are mired in deep poverty. In parts of Over-the-Rhine and West End, more than 83 percent of the population live at or below the poverty level, 1990 Census figures show. Updated poverty figures won't be available until later this year.

        Several African-American leaders have said the police shooting of an unarmed black man last month merely touched the surface of the community's frustration with Cincinnati's political and business elite. The extreme poverty also was a trigger.

        Mayor Charlie Luken established a race relations commission to come up with solutions to the city's persistent problems of racial strife and economic inequality.

        Mr. Cleveland says the empowerment zone should play a key role.

        “If we're talking about changing the city, why not begin (by using) this program?” Mr. Cleveland says.

        His group has a $12.3 million budget to help spur new jobs and housing and administer social programs.

        Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. board member Lamont Taylor says he doesn't believe corporations have refused to hire people from poorer neighborhoods. A big problem is transportation.

        Half the people living in zone neighborhoods don't own cars. And public transportation to the booming suburbs outside the Interstate 275 loop is scarce, especially for evening and early morning shifts.

        “There are plenty of jobs out there,” Mr. Taylor says. “A lot of individuals just can't get to the suburbs.”

       



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