Last month, a loose collection of politicians, businesses and community residents submitted a thick, detailed application to Washington in the hope of creating a federal Empowerment Zone-a targeted area that could receive hundreds of millions in government subsidies for economic development.
We’re talking big money here. If approved, the zone will receive more than $100 million in federal cash and tax breaks over a 10-year period, and another $100 million from state and local sources. There will also be a sizable block grant for non-profit social services agencies.
In other words, the proposed Zone could be the launching pad for Brooklyn’s economic growth in the next century. And one of the stated aims of Empowerment Zone is to create thousands of jobs for low-income Brooklynites. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that important parts of the economic development process-the “empowerment” part of the project-have already begun to slip out of the hands of the people and small businesses in Brooklyn’s low- and middle-income neighborhoods. What could have been a model of honest dialogue and joint problem solving between downtown corporations and inner city communities is starting to look like business as usual. Discontent among neighborhood leaders is approaching the point where the project runs the risk of turning into a big, messy brawl.
The first problem is that the lines of the proposed zone were drawn more or less in secret. As a result, the map leaves out some crucial commercial strips where important clusters of small businesses have been surviving under difficult conditions. Fifth Avenue in Park Slope is left out of the zone. So are Vanderbilt and Washington Avenues in Prospect Heights. The zone also excludes nearly all of the Crown Heights stretch of Nostrand Avenue. After a fight, the Bogolan Cultural District (in the Fort Greene section of Fulton Street) was included as a special development area that will get some Empowerment Zone benefits.
These strips are places where small businesses are bringing needed services and jobs to working people; they are exactly where new investment could make a big difference and help turn struggling areas into prosperous ones. Instead, it’s starting to look like the lion’s share of the benefits will go to large developers, large corporations and large cultural institutions (BAM, the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanic Gardens).
Dumping tax breaks and other benefits on large institutions isn’t the smart way to create jobs. According to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, there are 26,000 businesses in Brooklyn, and 86% of them have 10 or fewer employees. In fact, fully 95% of all Brooklyn businesses employ fewer than 20 people. If we’re going to be serious about creating jobs, the logical place to focus is on small businesses.
There’s still some reason for optimism. The proposed Zone correctly puts a heavy emphasis on the development of the waterfront, from Industry City to Greenpoint. Red Hook, the Gowanus Canal and the Navy Yard are all included, which makes sense. But the plan-and Brooklyn’s jobs agenda-won’t succeed until we give small businesses the high priority they deserve.
Where the Jobs Are
If you are friendly, hard-working and looking for a job, the two magic words are Kings Plaza. Sears, Radio Shack and other stores in Kings Plaza are getting ready to staff up for the holiday crunch, and the managers tell me they are welcoming job applicants. Sears in particular has streamlined its process so that you can walk into the store and interview for a job on the spot at any time during store hours-no appointments, no complicated call back system. Sears has 50 to 60 open jobs that they would like to fill.
Obviously, the flip side of this fast-track system is that the interview is extremely important. Be friendly and energetic, and don’t bat an eye when they talk about the long weekend hours (Saturday and Sunday are when retail stores make their money).
Farewell to a Friend
I recently learned with great sorrow that the Rev. James H. Daniel, Jr. succumbed to cancer in mid-October. Rev. Daniel, as founder and president of the 21st Century Partnership and the East Fulton Street Group, was a consistent and principled advocate for business development and greater bank reinvestment in Central Brooklyn. Over the years, in our many strategy sessions and joint meetings with banks, Rev. Daniel was inevitably the one to insist on making our demands just a bit bigger. He was always the one to interrupt the meeting and up the ante with a quiet, religious intensity. “Why are we settling for a million from these banks?” he would say. “We should start at $1 billion in venture capital for community businesses, and go up from there!” His voice will be missed.