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Compete and Empower

By Michael Allan Wolf. Michael Allan Wolfdirector at the Enterprise Zone Project at the University of Richmond, Va., is visiting professor at The American University in Washington. / December 20, 1993

ONE of Washington's best-kept secrets will be revealed in the coming weeks as officials at the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Agriculture announce the rules in the national competitions for ``empowerment zones'' and ``enterprise communities.''

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After 12 years of Washington wrestling with the enterprise zone concept, Congress and the president finally have agreed to a federal enterprise zone program as part of the budget reconciliation in August. Although designing the legislation to meet deficit-reduction strictures was no mean feat, administration officials (led by Vice President Gore) faced a more daunting task: designing criteria for selecting nine areas to be empowerment zones and 95 localities to be enterprise communities. Currently, hundreds of state-designated enterprise zones in 40 states and probably hundreds of additional communities are interested in federal designation. Although the legislation contains details on eligibility (geography, population, and degree of poverty), there is little guidance on the designation process.

There is a two-year (1994-95) selection window. The secretaries of HUD and Agriculture are to give special attention to plans submitted by state and local governments. Beyond that, there is still an opportunity to craft selection procedures.

The selection should first give designation to the most deserving localities. Second, it should encourage public-private-community partnerships. Third, states and localities that have been fighting the good economic development and revitalization fight should not be disheartened. Fourth, successes and failures must be monitored. Each of these goals must be addressed by an effective designation strategy.

Much speculation has concerned not those communities in the most dire need, but the six cities that supposedly have the inside track in the empowerment zone sweepstakes. Chicago (``the Rostenkowski Zone,'') New York (the ``Rangel Zone''), and Los Angeles (the ``Rodney King Zone'') are mentioned most often. But tough questions still remain:

* Which neighborhoods will benefit from the zone incentives and government funding?

* Which adjoining or nearby jurisdictions will be asked to join the nomination? And within or even outside the state?

* Can local officials demonstrate that community-based organizations will participate through the entire process?

* Will state authorities allow multiple nominations, or give a blessing to only one area?

It only gets tougher when one looks at other central cities with highly visible pockets of poverty like Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington.

The legislation even creates special subcategories: One empowerment zone is reserved for an urban area that has no city with a population greater than half a million. Places such as Atlanta, Bridgeport, Conn., Miami, and Richmond, Va., are among the cities that meet this criterion. Owing to the efforts of Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, some say Camden, N.J., has a lock on the zone reserved for a distressed area that straddles two states and has a population of less than 50,000 (although dozens of other border cities fit this description).