A Presidential 'promise' to improve West Philadelphia
Experts question how President Barack Obama's Promise Zone will improve Mantua
February 2, 2014, 3:31 pm · Updated April 2, 2014, 8:58 pm·
Working in Mantua, West Philadelphia — which is just a mile north of Penn’s campus — isn’t easy. Dorothy Dicks, a church administrator, has been approached by many women in need of help, be it poverty, drug abuse or physical abuse.
Fifty-one percent of that section of Philadelphia, which is home to 35,315 residents, is in poverty. The unemployment rate for Mantua is 13.6 percent, which is twice the national unemployment rate as of December 2013.
Dicks, who works for the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church of Philadelphia, said that change in the area is “well needed.” Right now, she tries to help the area by working with her small church to provide clothes, after- school programs and counseling to members in need.
However, Dicks hopes that President Barack Obama’s Promise Zone designation for this section of Philadelphia will be the engine that restores Mantua to its former glory.
Obama’s Promise Zone designation was first mentioned in February 2013 as a place-based approach to fighting poverty. Obama proposed to invest $750 million in impoverished communities to provide a tax incentive to secure private investments that will foster jobs and build homes. However, some experts question what will result from these Promise Zones.
For Mantua, which is one of five areas across the country which received this designation, the plan is to aid the zone with tax credits designed to encourage investment and job creation, and reduce crime and school dropout rates.
Drexel University has been involved with the local Mantua neighborhood for years — helping with grant applications and running other programs — and was instrumental in helping write the application for the Promise Zone designation. Penn is currently not involved in working with Mantua under the Promise Zone designation.
Lucy Kerman, Drexel’s vice provost of university and community partnerships, said that this designation will “bring more people, more partners to the table” which would lead to “more expertise and more hands on deck to help address the goals of the community.”
While this designation will not bring new money to this area, Kerman is optimistic about the attention it will bring to the community, which will hopefully increase grant funding by both the government and other organizations.
“What’s so gratifying for the partners is that [the Promise Zone designation] does recognize the depth of our partnership and that, for us, the strategy is to work in deep partnerships in a particular neighborhood so that you really leverage all the investments,” Kerman said.
Although Kerman and Dicks are optimistic about what this designation can bring to Mantua, John Landis, a professor of city and regional planning at PennDesign, is less certain of what is to come.
“If you look at the historical record, it’s hard to be optimistic,” he said. “I don’t know the specifics since they haven’t released them so I can’t say it won’t succeed, but if you look at similar past efforts ... the ability of the federal government to stimulate economic development and jobs is very limited and there’s a very poor track record of it, particularly in cities.”
Landis specifically referred to the government’s Enterprise Zones, federal urban development programs started under President Ronald Reagan’s administration which Landis said were relatively unsuccessful in creating jobs in Philadelphia.
One of the programs that Landis believes successfully brought jobs to Philadelphia was the Keystone Opportunity Zones program, a statewide program that reduced property taxes and other business taxes for tenants, making office spaces more attractive to commercial renters. He noted the program succeeded in the Cira Centre in University City, as many law firms moved there from Center City.
However, he doubts the federal government will implement similar strategies in the Promise Zone designation.
“The feds have never done anything like that — which is to make it cheaper for the tenants to occupy the space that will attract certain types of businesses to certain spaces,” Landis said. “Either you subsidize developers or you subsidize tenants, which the federal government does not do. Anything else, it is hard to see how it would have an effect.”
Robert Stokes, an associate professor of sociology at Drexel, is also unsure what this designation will bring, but believes that Mantua is a good place to try out the idea.
“Between Drexel and Penn, they picked the right place,” he said. “They picked the worst performing neighborhood adjacent to two private research universities.” However, like Landis, he said that “it’s still sort of a mystery to me in terms of how it is actually going to work.”
With the details of the Promise Zones still being hashed out by Congress, which has not yet approved the designation, it is hard to predict the future of the Mantua section of West Philadelphia.
However, one of the major benefits of this program would be that Mantua would receive more points when applying for federal grants. For example, if a grant from Mantua is equally competitive to that of one from a community in another part of Philadelphia, Mantua will likely receive the grant money or aid. The exact amount of extra points Mantua will receive on their applications is still not clear.
The other four communities that have received this designation thus far are San Antonio, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky and Oklahoma. Ultimately, this initiative is supposed to target 20 areas.
Dicks remains optimistic about the future of her neighborhood.
“I’m glad that we can all come together to build the Mantua area back up, from the schools to the business to the homeowners,” Dicks said.