Obama names impoverished Mantua among first five Promise Zones

Posted: January 11, 2014

MANTUA President Obama pointed to one of Philadelphia's most depressing statistics - nearly four in 10 children live below the poverty line - as one of the main reasons the city's Mantua section was chosen as one of the nation's first five Promise Zones.

The president officially announced Thursday that West Philadelphia, in particular the Mantua neighborhood, would receive federal help from the new Promise Zones program, aimed at cutting unemployment, poverty, and crime, enhancing education, and attracting private-sector investment and jobs.

But unlike some previous federal programs, the zones are not promised a check from Washington any time soon.

"We will help them succeed, not with a handout, but as partners with them every step of the way," Obama said in Washington during Thursday's announcement, which Mayor Nutter attended. "We're going to hold them accountable to make sure it is making a difference in the lives of kids."

Promise Zones will get priority access to more than two dozen federal grants, Obama's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, said in a follow-up conference with reporters.

Concrete federal benefits for the zones are limited. They include, for instance, the award of bonus points in scored competitions for help from 25 different federal programs - but no guarantee of government aid.

Philadelphia's application - submitted by a team that will be involved in the zone, including various city officials, the School District, the Housing Authority, Drexel University, and several Mantua nonprofits, including Mount Vernon Manor Inc. - set 11 broad goals, but did not specify target numbers.

For example, the group aims to "attract private investments and new business, while strengthening existing businesses," and "increase access to jobs," while not saying how many businesses or jobs it hopes to attract. Other goals include expanding home ownership, increasing quality prekindergarten programs, and reducing crime.

The idea is to have local, state, and federal agencies work together on a plan to improve a target area - such as Mantua, where the poverty rate is close to 51 percent and unemployment is 13.6 percent for the 35,315 residents, according to the city's application.

"A child's course in life should be determined not by the zip code she's born in," Obama said Thursday, "but by the strength of her work ethic."

He first pitched the Promise Zones program almost a year ago in his State of the Union speech. Though its launch is now official, an important component - availability of tax credits for business development inside the zones - is not yet in place. Congress would need to pass legislation to approve such credits.

To get the tax credits OKd, Obama and fellow Democrats will need help in the Republican-controlled House. GOP reaction to Thursday's formal rollout of the program was mixed.

U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) supported the idea and released a statement congratulating Nutter and saying in part, "By identifying sectors in need of economic transformation and putting forward commonsense reforms, we can help to lift communities and families, create jobs, improve infrastructure, and focus on the needs of children."

But even before Obama gave his afternoon address, the Republican National Committee was criticizing his efforts.

"The fact that it's taken more than 330 days for the president to move on a fraction of his proposals shows a remarkable lack of urgency to address a situation that has only gotten worse on his watch," RNC spokesman Michael Short said.

While several areas of the city face challenges similar to or worse than Mantua's, the West Philadelphia neighborhood had the groundwork in place to qualify as an applicant for a Promise Zone designation.

One of the criteria was that at least one of three federal grant programs - the Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods Implementation, and Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grants - was already in place. That made Mantua, with a Byrne grant and a Drexel-connected Choice grant, the city's only choice, said the city's chief grants officer, Maari Porter.

Lucy Kerman, Drexel's vice provost for university and community partnerships, said the school had been working with West Philadelphia groups for the last few years on implementing those grants.

The Promise Zone designation, Kerman said, was more of a recognition of the joint community work being done involving the university, a so-called anchor institution, and nonprofit community groups.

"It's less about the money and more about partnerships," Kerman said, adding that she was not sure of the specifics of what the Promise Zone would bring. "We're told we will have federal folks coming and working with us."

Donovan offered some details Thursday, saying five full-time AmeriCorps members of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) will be deployed to work full time in each of the first five Promise Zones.

Donovan said the zones were different in that Washington officials were not "swooping in" and trying to save a community with their ideas. Rather, they will be helping advance ideas already being developed locally - a "bottom-up" approach, as Obama put it.

The other initial Promise Zones are in San Antonio, Texas; Los Angeles; southeastern Kentucky; and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The administration plans to expand to 20 locations within three years.


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas

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