Harlem Renaissance–Take Two

After years of neglect, will empowerment zones allow Harlem to thrive once again?

Perhaps a little skepticism is to be expected. The thought that Harlem, after years of neglect from private investors and major corporations, is suddenly primed for an economic explosion seems a bit too good to be true.

But seeing is believing, at least at this point. Over the last two years, no fewer than a dozen large businesses, including Wait Disney Co., Rite Aid Corp., Viacom Inc., and Gap Inc., have announced they’re opening major retail outlets in this neighborhood that became one of six federally funded empowerment zones in 1995. Meanwhile, Magic Johnson announced that his movie theater chain was coming to town, and Harlem USA, a massive retail/entertainment complex, is set to break ground soon within shouting distance of the Apollo Theatre.

“Some are very enthusiastic. Some are cautiously optimistic. Others are downright skeptical,” says Deborah Wright, president and CEO of the New York Empowerment Zone. She oversees the massive $300 million program intended to revitalize a community that was once considered a pariah by private investors. “Harlem has been promised a lot in the past and a lot of promises have been broken,” she explains. “We have to prove that we’re worthy of this community’s trust.” (In addition to Harlem, New York’s Empowerment Zone takes in the Washington Heights/Inwood neighborhood.)

New York’s situation is unique in that the governor of the state and the mayor of the city both matched the federal funding commitment of $100 million. So New York City has $300 million to spend, while other zone sites may have a third of that amount.
The empowerment zones have been touted by supporters as a solution to reviving inner-city decay by luring big business to deprived communities. In addition to New York, other zone sites include Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit and the Philadelphia-Camden, New Jersey area.

Among the tax incentives for corporations are annual tax credits of up to $3,000 for each empowerment zone resident employed. Zone employees can receive a tax deduction of up to $37,500 during the first year of operation, if they open a business in a specific location within the zone. Meanwhile, qualified businesses are eligible for a new category of tax-exempt bonds that will fund the financing of new or renovated facilities.

This is all good news. But many Harlem residents and small business owners were concerned at the outset that they would be left out of the economic revival, while outsiders cashed in. While it may be years before a judgment can be made, there are some skeptics who are concerned that this empowerment zone may benefit corporate CEOs looking for a fresh marketplace–more than inner-city residents. The question is: Will having a GAP on 125th Street help Harlem residents or will it simply fatten the retail chain’s bottom line?

“The zone has awesome potential,” says Lloyd Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. “Unfortunately, the major beneficiaries of the zone to date have been some of the large corporations. You have a Pathmark coming here and we need it. But

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