September 28, 1998
Volume 51, No. 6
Rich conducts field research for Empowerment Zone
Political science professor Michael Rich is known for bringing the world into his classroom. Last year, with the resources of a Ford Foundation grant, he involved his urban policy students in a comprehensive analysis of the Atlanta job scene with an eye to determining the outcomes of welfare reform.
Since 1994 Rich has extended his investigation of contemporary urban problems to field research on the federal Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities (EZ/EC) initiative; he is director of the Atlanta field research team for the initiative's national assessment. The research is being funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which serves as the lead federal agency.
Atlanta won designation as one of six Empowerment Zone communities, qualifying the city for the highest level of federal assistance through the initiative. The city is one of the 18 EZ/EC sites that are part of this national research project. In each community, a faculty member at a local university leads the research team's investigations. Other members of the Atlanta team include political science professors Michael Giles and Robert Brown and several graduate students.
Rich's team is now in the phase of the national evaluation known as the Interim Outcomes Assessment--"what EZ/EC communities have accomplished over the first five years of the initiative and how these outcomes relate to what was projected in their strategic plans," Rich said. A report will be submitted to HUD in the spring of 2001.
The EZ/EC initiative encourages communities to undertake a comprehensive strategic planning process designed to identify pressing needsalong with major assetsthat can be addressed with additional federal funding.
Atlanta's EZ designation allows the city to use $100 million in federal block grant funds and $150 million in federal tax credits to help implement its strategic plan to revitalize distressed inner-city neighborhoods. The target area for this initiative in Atlanta is a contiguous block of 30 neighborhoods that form a "Y" around the central business district, extending southward toward the airport. Each of these neighborhoods has a poverty rate of 35 percent or higher, and the zone's overall poverty rate is above 50 percent, the highest of any zone city.
The Atlanta strategic plan focuses on four major areas: expanding employment and investment opportunities; creating safe, livable communities; lifting youth and families out of poverty; and providing adequate housing for all.
Since 1995 Atlanta team members have conducted nearly 100 intensive interviews with key EZ stakeholders. "Our objective with the field interviews is not only to obtain basic facts about various EZ initiatives but to also gauge the perceptions each of the key stakeholder groups--citizens, government, business and nonprofit organizations," Rich said.
In addition, Rich and his associates attend monthly board meetings of the Atlanta Empowerment Zone Corporation as well as sessions of the Community Empowerment Advisory Board, a special 36-member citizen panel. They also review EZ-related documents and analyze census data on the economics and demographics of EZ neighborhoods.
The Atlanta field research team has played an important role in increasing public understanding of the EZ/EC initiative. HUD has released three reports thus far on the EZ/EC field research. Rich was involved with members of the central research team in establishing the research protocols and for writing composite reports based on information submitted from each of the 18 study sites.
The third report, which focused on community development finance, concluded that many EZ/EC communities have encountered difficulties in forging connections among funded activities, in relating EZ/EC organizational structures with existing state and local administrative systems and in working with nonprofit groups and small businesses lacking sufficient administrative capacities.
Atlanta's EZ/EC initiative has shared these problems. As of August 1998 Atlanta had received approval for programs and activities amounting to $21.7 million and another $4 million for administration. Of this amount, only $4.6 million of program funding has been spent, though all but $25,000 of the $4 million administrative budget is gone.
This situation poses a significant challenge for Joseph Reid, whom Mayor Bill Campbell recently appointed as Atlanta's new EZ Corporation executive director. While there is no formal relationship between Emory and the corporation, Rich said, "We are currently exploring with HUD how we can make the findings of our research available to Mr. Reid and other key Atlanta EZ stakeholders so that information might be used to help get the EZ initiative going again."