Trouble Seen in `Enterprise Zones'

One Brooklyn, N.Y., office project shows why new US urban-renewal effort may fail

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PUBLIC-HOUSING resident Dwayne Holloway burst out laughing when asked if anyone he knew got a job at the new, $1-billion Metrotech business center across the street.

``It's a joke, right?'' he responded. ``No one did.''

Metrotech - a local urban-renewal project billed as bringing 20,000 new jobs to Brooklyn by the year 2000 - uses many of the same tactics as the new $3.5-billion national ``empowerment zone'' urban-renewal program enacted by Congress last year.

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Both efforts rely heavily on generous tax incentives to lure businesses to blighted areas.

But critics warn that Metrotech shows that tax breaks alone may not be enough to create thousands of new jobs in the inner cities or reduce unemployment among the urban poor. (Clinton plan, right.)

Part of downtown Brooklyn is thriving because of Metrotech, but by most estimates far fewer new jobs than expected have been created since the complex opened four years ago. Many of the 10,000 residents of the Fort Greene public-housing projects across the street now bitterly deride the project.

``It's brought vibrancy and life back to an area that hasn't seen it in years,'' says Jan Rosenberg, a professor of sociology at Long Island University who is studying hiring at Metrotech. ``What it hasn't done I think is connect people in the projects with jobs.''

A generous package of more than $100 million in city and state tax and energy breaks convinced developer Forest City Ratner to build Metrotech and several large finance and high technology firms to move into the modern, granite-and-brick complex.

When the first section of Metrotech opened in 1990 10,000 ``new'' jobs arrived in downtown Brooklyn, but most of them were already filled. Chase Manhattan Bank and other potential employers simply transferred employees from other offices they closed in New York to Metrotech.

Public and private planners had hoped that some of the companies' existing employees would give up their jobs instead of making the longer commute to Brooklyn, but few did.

``The personnel managers I've talked to said there was a very small attrition rate,'' says Earl Haye, executive director of the Downtown Brooklyn Training and Employment Council, a city-funded agency established to funnel local workers to Metrotech jobs. ``But the economy was so bad that few people were willing to give up their jobs.''

Mr. Haye says that since the council was established 18 months ago, it has placed 53 local residents in full-time jobs at Metrotech. Corporate training programs and city government summer internships employ 50 to 75 people.

``Only in the last 10 months have we seen an increase in jobs,'' Haye says. ``A lot of these corporations just go to temporary agencies for people.''

Receiving well-qualified people from the area's 15 training programs is also a problem.

``When we started this office, a lot of the companies were looking for people with experience'' with certain computer applications, says Haye, who has a staff of four, ``but the programs weren't giving people training for that.''

Some Metrotech efforts have been successful. Over 30 percent of construction is being done by women- or minority-owned businesses. A small-business ``incubator'' funded by the state and the developer opened in January with 18 minority- and women-owned high technology firms.

``As people leave [jobs at Metrotech], new jobs are going to open up,'' says Greg Brooks, Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden's chief of staff. ``Are they guaranteed jobs? No they're not. But if Metrotech didn't exist, those jobs wouldn't be there.''

Mr. Brooks also says some local residents may have found jobs in the restaurants and shops that Metrotech's 10,000 employees now frequent.

JUST across Flatbush Avenue, residents of the sprawling Fort Greene projects scoff at the idea that Metrotech has created new jobs.

The 4,900-family public-housing development is one of the poorest sections of a neighborhood with an infant-mortality rate that is twice the national average. Residents say the unemployment rate in the projects is more than 50 percent and drug sales and use are rampant.

``Jobs? where are the jobs? I want a job?'' a teenage boy sitting with four of his friends on a dumpster says when asked about Metrotech. His friend shouts bitterly, ``That was a front.''

The crowded complex's drab, brick, six- to 10-story buildings with small windows have the cookie-cutter look of public housing built throughout the US in more optimistic times. Metrotech's glimmering 23-story main tower hovers over one section of the run-down complex like a far off monument.

``I applied at personnel at Metrotech and I haven't heard anything back,'' says Terry McDuffie, an articulate mother of two who is on welfare and in a job-training program. ``I believe people in the projects ought to be eligible for some of those jobs.''

But Long Island University professor Rosenberg argues, and several residents agree, that part of the problem is that few project residents know how to apply for a job or have marketable skills.

Rosenberg found in a study of hiring in another Brooklyn neighborhood that a person's ability to get a job was most influenced by whether they knew someone at a potential employer. She and some urban-renewal experts say tax credits will not bring businesses to areas they consider crime-ridden or get businesses to hire unskilled local workers. They predict that the eventual success of Metrotech and similar federal and state ``enterprise zone'' programs depends on how much politically unpopular, but necessary social spending is included in them.

Local governments need funds to hire nonprofit or for-profit firms to provide practical, ``business savvy'' job training for poor residents with few skills or contacts. ``There's more to it than just giving tax credits to employers,'' Rosenberg says. ``There's the whole employee side.''

Brooklyn resident Tim Hobson, sitting on a bench amid Metrotech's freshly planted trees and flower beds, predicted the complex's glittering towers and outdoor cafes may never help the people ``across the street.''

``It does bring some jobs and it brings a lot of hope,'' Mr. Hobson says, ``but the promise is never fulfilled.''

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