After recently becoming one of President Obama’s first sets of five Promise Zones this past January, West Philadelphia community leaders held their first open meeting at the Morton McMichael School in Mantua last month. The purpose of the meeting was to inform residents and business owners about the designation and what it will mean for the future.
City councilwoman Jannie Blackwell led the meeting. Other community leaders in attendance were Eva Gladstein, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission, Andy Frishkoff, Executive Director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Donna Griffin of the Mantua Civic Association.
“We were pleased,” said Gladstein, “that more than 100 individuals attended the community meeting, including leaders from a number of civic associations whose membership includes the residents of Mantua, West Powelton, Powelton, Walnut Hill, Spruce Hill, Belmont and Parkside, as well as businesses located along the Lancaster Avenue corridor.”
The assigned zone runs from the Schuylkill River to 48th street and lies between Sansom Street and Girard Avenue. The boundaries contain an estimated 35,000 people and were drawn to include the area’s most valuable assets, including schools, non-profit organizations and the businesses along the Lancaster Avenue Commercial Corridor.
Being declared a Promise Zone does not guarantee that the designated area will receive money. The main goal is to give low-income areas priority to apply for grants that help aid community development, ultimately spurring job creation. Designated zones will be alerted when new grants become available and will have a weighted advantage in receiving them.
Additionally, zones will be given opportunities to earn points through various initiatives and the top scoring community may be eligible for monetary rewards including tax credits. However, Congress must approve these tax credits before this is possible.
So far, four committees have been created to organize various initiatives. They were broken down into housing, eco-development, public safety, and education. A fifth committee for health and wellness is still being organized. Each committee is to be co-chaired by a city agency and a non-profit organization. Federal government agencies will also become involved as planning progresses.
Although community leaders are still in the early planning stages, they encouraged residents and business owners to start contacting the appropriate committees with any concerns and initiatives they would like to take on, using the Promise Zone designation as support to achieve these goals.
While they were unable to discuss specific plans at last month’s meeting, Gladstein expressed the importance of spreading the word and getting the community more involved.
“As we continue our planning, we will work with these civic associations to continue to inform their members,” said Gladstein. “We are beginning to plan activities that will take place later in the spring and summer to bring together residents, make positive changes in the community and bring attention to the Promise Zone designation.”
West Philadelphia was the only area of Philadelphia to even be eligible for a Promise Zone designation because Mantua had previously received both the Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant and the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Grant. These housing and crime grants were major factors in passing the first round of assessment for the Promise Zone designation because no other community in Philadelphia has both.
Donna Griffin of the Mantua Civic Association told meeting attendees that the process of applying took more than two years. They were informed of their eligibility back in August of 2013 and were finally declared a Promise Zone in early January of 2014.
Within the next three years, the Obama Administration will be designating an additional 15 zones around the country to aid impoverished communities.
While there was a positive turn out at this first meeting, one attendee addressed an important observation during the Q and A session. The majority of those in attendance were already involved in civic and city organizations while participation from regular community residents seemed to be lacking. This raises the question about how many people are actually aware of this designation and whether or not they are interested in being active in this 10-year process to improve the community.
While there have been no concrete plans set as of yet, local leaders have urged community organizations to keep doing what they’ve been doing while the committees get organized and federal assistance is brought in.
The hope for this West Philadelphia Promise Zone is to bring in more money through the addition of more businesses and jobs, to clean up the area through beautification initiatives, and to give the community more opportunities to learn and receive job training.
– Text, images and video by Ana Corredor and Katelynn K. Luczkow