Empowerment zone funding may be on chopping block

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 9, 2003

Yet again funding for the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone is in jeopardy because a lack of support by President George W. Bush.

Earlier this week, President

Bush released his budget proposal for the 2004 fiscal year that begins in October.

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Grants for the 15 Round 2 Empowerment Zones were once again left out.

However, this is nothing new. Bush included no funds for the 2003 fiscal year either because he is not convinced this program is effective in stimulating economic development.

But Congress is not going to give up on the program without a fight.

Cathy Burns, executive director of the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone, said that the U.S. House and Senate have each introduced similar bills that would budget approximately $2 million in 2003 for each of the 15 zones.

The Round 2 Empowerment Zones were created four years ago by President Bill Clinton to boost the economy and attract businesses to urban areas, Burns said.

"We are real grateful that the House and Senate both included funding for 2003 in their omnibus bill, particularly because the budget is difficult for Congress this time because of Homeland Security and funding for the military," she said.

Burns said hopefully the bill will be voted on after President's Day weekend Feb. 18.

Empowerment Zones in Cincinnati and Columbus would also suffer by Bush's proposed cuts for 2003 and 2004.

"The funding is being zeroed out because the administration believes tax cuts and incentives will stimulate the economy more effectively, opposed to cash grants," Burns said. "Obviously those of us in the field disagree because you have to have money to use a tax break."

Representative Frank LoBiondo from New Jersey has introduced a bill in the House that would make it an annual appropriation so the President could not cut it every year. Hopefully a comparable bill will be introduced in the Senate, she said.

Sixth District U.S. Congressman Ted Strickland strongly opposes Bush's cuts and said he will continue to fight to have funding included in the 2003

budget and beyond.

"This really is an example of the unreliability of a community to be able to rely on a follow through of promises made," he said. "When this program was announced, it was an exciting time that required a lot of planning and obligations with the expectations that the federal government would come through."

In 2002, the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone received $3 million in funding. Although Bush cut the program in 2003,

Strickland said Congress has fought to have it reincluded and is optimistic each zone will be able to receive at least $2 million this year.

But Strickland said he thinks this will continue to be a year-to-year fight to keep this program funded.

"Part of the problem is that it introduces a lot of uncertainty in planning because communities cannot predict what resources will be available," he said.

The Point industrial park in South Point is one project that really utilizes the Empowerment Zone funding, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Obviously it hurts anytime you lose funding, but we think we have enough money in place to finish phase 1," Roger Haley, park manger for The Point said.

"It could have a real impact on future phases in the park."

"The Empowerment Zone has really been a benefit because most of the grants require matching funds and with out these funds we would not be able to apply for these grants."

Phase 1 of the $3.25 million project will develop the 504-acre industrial park, formerly South Point Ethanol, and consists of building roads and continuing utility services throughout the park, he said.

Another aspect of the program, Burns said up to $3,000 in annual wage credits are still available for businesses located in the Empowerment Zone that employee residents of the zone. For information, visit www.hud.gov/cr or call (304) 399-5454.