That was supposed to bring $100 million in grants, loans and other funding spread over 10 years for job training, housing development and other programs to boost parts of nine Cincinnati neighborhoods.
But things haven't proceeded as smoothly as expected. Controversy surrounded the Cincinnati Empowerment Corporation's (CEC) first candidate for chief executive officer, Dr. Stanley Broadnax, a former Cincinnati Health Commissioner forced to resign in 1993 after he called in sick to work another job. Broadnax was also later convicted on drug-related charges.
Now, because the CEC still is trying to hire a chief executive, among other reasons, Councilman Charlie Winburn wants to replace the CEC board and to conduct a city review to determine what the best course of action is for the non-profit agency. Paul Wolgin, chair of the CEC's board, said the non-profit agency just needs more time because of funding complications and other unforeseen problems.
President Clinton introduced Empowerment Zones in 1994 to pool public and private resources to fund programs that lift people out of poverty and neighborhoods out of decline. The application areas are limited to 50,000 residents, 20 square miles and have four basic goals, according to Wolgin, including:
· Better housing, increased home ownership and neighborhood development;
· Economic development and work force expansion;
· Getting the apathetic and non-involved to work in their community;
· Bettering the well-being of individuals and families.
Cincinnati applied for the 1994 round of zones but was unsuccessful. Then, in 1998, a new round was announced, and a coalition of community council and others decided to give it a second try.
The groups, led by Avondale community activist Jerry Pryor, convinced the city to provide $50,000 to hire a grant writer for the application process. All or part of a group of more than 200 people met 66 times in 1998 to work on the application, largely without city guidance, finishing in December 1998, according to Wolgin.
The Empowerment Zone backers convinced area businesses to pledge to create 10,000 jobs and area banks to pledge $400 million in home and business loans, plus millions more in in-kind services, then whittled numerous Empowerment Zone program proposals down to 24 finalists representing nine neighborhoods -- including Avondale, Clifton/Fairview, Corryville, Evanston, Mount Auburn, Over-the-Rhine, Queensgate, Walnut Hills and the West End.
After their application was approved, they formed a 33-member board -- 11 people each with a business background, a government or non-profit background and a community background -- and began writing bylaws.
Fourteen months after the HUD notification in January 1999, however, the CEC still doesn't have a CEO and hasn't decided what programs it will fund, although it hopes to have both worked out in the next few months, according to Wolgin.
That's not quick enough for Winburn. Following up a Dec. 24 memo critical of the CEC and City Manager John Shirey, Winburn motioned on March 7 for the city manager to explore asking for every CEC board member to resign because, among other reasons:
· Various board members constantly bicker and argue because they are unable to reach a super majority vote, which requires 23 votes from the 33-member board to pass an item. Winburn suggested the board change its policy to a simple majority of 18 members.
· Some members boycott the meetings to hold up work they're opposed to;
· 11 members of the CEC have resigned.
Councilman Jim Tarbell, for one, agrees with some of Winburn's points, although he hasn't attended a CEC meeting yet.
"(The CEC's situation) is the epitome of the dysfunction that we're trying to address," Tarbell said.
"At some point, we may have to get involved at some level," said Mayor Charlie Luken.
"The board's too large," Tarbell said later, adding that it's probably also a good idea to get a new board chairman because Wolgin hasn't delivered results.
Winburn suggested at the March 8 council meeting that the Empowerment Zone might better be managed by the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, which drew a few groans from the audience and a quick retraction from Winburn.
Winburn drew some of his conclusions after attending a summer Empowerment Zone meeting that focused on Broadnax's appointment. The proposal divided the CEC board, which ultimately did not appoint him.
"I attended one board meeting, and I could not believe I was in America," Winburn said of the meeting, noting that people were yelling at each other and walking out.
Winburn also criticized the CEC for not formally adopting a strategy for its $6.95 million in federal, state and local funding.
"We have $7 million laying around and we don't have a plan for it," he said.
Wolgin responded to Winburn in a point-by-point letter to city council, which he presented at the March 8 meeting. Winburn's criticisms don't present both sides of the story, he said.
"If he would be a little more careful and not go around and make motions based on rumors, we'd all be a lot better off," Wolgin said.
The CEC has had a program and funding plan ever since it applied for an Empowerment Zone in December 1998, Wolgin said. He expects the CEC board to adopt the final plan at its April 3 meeting.
The problem is that the CEC expected $10 million in grants, loans and other HUD funding each year for 10 years. Instead, Congress approved only a combined total of $6.1 million, forcing the CEC board to reevaluate its priorities. The CEC also has received a $600,000 social services grant from the state of Ohio and $250,000 from the Cincinnati Department of Neighborhood Services.
The delays also are tied to CEC's assumption that it couldn't spend any of its money until it and the city signed a contract outlining the city's and CEC's Empowerment Zone responsibilities. That didn't happen until December.
"So we couldn't get an office, we couldn't get a phone, we couldn't buy a pencil," Wolgin said.
The 11 board members who resigned did so for various reasons, mostly because of a lack of time, Wolgin said. There were few or no contentious resignations, as Winburn's memo seems to indicate, he said.
And although the Broadnax controversy stalled the search for a CEO, it began again in January by hired Willis Baker and Associates to conduct a formal search
"We don't need Mr. Winburn's oversight right now," Wolgin said.
Wolgin wondered why Winburn canceled two meetings Wolgin scheduled with him before the March 8 council meeting, and why Winburn hasn't responded to a request for a third.
Winburn couldn't be reached for comment on those questions.
Winburn, a consistent critic of City Manager John Shirey, seemed to withdraw some of his earlier Empowerment Zone allegations against Shirey after Councilman Phil Heimlich reviewed them with Wolgin at the March 8 meeting. Heimlich said he was "somewhat shocked" by their anti-Shirey tone.
For example, Winburn blamed Shirey for the CEC board not approving its program goals and for not resolving some contentious CEC board disputes, but also for the appearance that Shirey seemed to be micromanaging the CEC through his staff.
The CEC has a contract with the city and receives its annual funding from HUD, but the CEC operates as an independent organization, with its own board and CEO.
Despite his December memo, Winburn said Shirey isn't the issue.
"We're going to put the hat on the leadership of this board," Winburn said. "Mr. Wolgin, I hate to say it, (but) it starts with you."
"We'll get through this," Wolgin said. "Just give us a chance."