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Jacksonville's proposed Promise Zone includes Downtown, Northwest Jacksonville, parts of Arlington and the Southside. The contiguous area has to have a poverty rate of at least 32.5 percent and population of 10,000 to 200,000 residents. If selected, t...
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Feb. 18, 201612:00 PM EST

City pursuing federal Promise Zone program to focus on low-income areas that need help

by: David Chapman

Northwest Jacksonville could use an influx of caring and capital.

Downtown, Old Arlington, North Jacksonville and parts of the Southside could, too.

Mayor Lenny Curry and a host of community partners are trying to show a commitment — they’re competing for a designation that would provide a leg up for important federal dollars.

It’s called the Promise Zone Initiative, announced by President Barack Obama in 2013 as a way to revitalize communities through collaborative working.

Just 20 cities, rural areas and tribal regions will earn the distinction and the benefits that come with it. Thirteen have been picked the past two years. It’s last call for Jacksonville and others to try.

The designation isn’t a grant. It doesn’t provide guarantees. But it’s helped those previously selected to receive more than $100 million in funding for cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles that were part of the original five communities.

“This is pretty big,” said Kerri Stewart, Curry’s chief of staff who has been working with the city’s Office of Grants & Compliance for months on Jacksonville’s application.

Big not only for possibility but for the effort that’s gone into it.

It’s been a five-month process that’s required wholesale buy-in from the public and private sectors.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Duval County Public Schools, various city departments and programs like the Jacksonville Journey are just a few partners on the public side. The private side includes organizations like the JAX Chamber, Local Initiatives Support Corp., Baptist Health and area colleges that have pledged support.

A Leadership Council for the Promise Zone Partnership has almost 30 members with ties to nonprofits, education, family services, business development and crime prevention.

Those organizations already are working toward solving Jacksonville’s problems, Stewart said. The effort through the designation is to ensure they’re working together.

The application requires such buy-in among other guidelines. The affected area must be contiguous, have an overall poverty rate at or above 32.5 percent and have 10,000 to 200,000 residents.

Damian Cook, a city grants administrator who’s overseen the application, said Jacksonville’s area has about 176,000 people with a poverty rate of 33.1 percent.

The proposed zone includes all of Health Zone 1 comprising Downtown, Northwest Jacksonville and the area west to Interstate 295 and north just past the Trout River.

It also carves out the newly created Arlington Community Redevelopment Area, neighborhoods southwest of Regency Square Mall and an area south of Downtown.

“We tried to create as large an area as we could,” said Cook. “We wanted to meet the needs of residents in those areas, neighborhood by neighborhood.”

Promises elsewhere

Jackie Gorman has seen how the Promise Zone is helping San Antonio’s 22-square-mile Eastside area.

“It let us tap into federal resources we otherwise might not have been able to,” said the executive director of San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside.

It’s a zone with three distinct areas and needs for the majority Hispanic and African-American residents.

Closer to Downtown, there’s concern of gentrification when it comes to housing.

Further east is a larger area of residential mixed with neighborhood businesses — pharmacies, dry cleaners, car washes, the occasional payday lender — often found throughout inner cities. And even further east becomes more suburban with more industrial businesses.

One commonality, she says: Crime “almost every day.”

Headlines for some of the more serious offenses often come from the Eastside, yet there’s also news of “some really good things happening.”

The Promise Zone designation helped the area secure a $500,000 grant to put together a master economic development plan that should have a first draft in the coming months.

A second grant for $740,000 came to the organization from a Department of Health and Human Services program and has been used for what’s called the SAGE Equity Fund.

It’s a job creation effort to help businesses move to or expand in the Eastside.

For every $10,000 offered, she said, companies commit to creating a new job — 75 percent of hires have to be low-income.

Los Angeles also was one of the five original communities to earn a Promise Zone designation comprising parts of East Hollywood, Westlake and other adjoining areas.

In all, there are 165,000 residents with 35 percent living below the poverty line, according to the zone’s 2015 annual report.

“It’s a flexible enough program that lets you lead from a position of strength,” said Alison Becker, director of the LA Promise Zone.

Los Angeles’ strength, she said, is the partnerships the region already had built dedicated to improving housing and education.

The partners who have signed on collectively have attracted more than $100 million in the past several years, she said.

And more organizations are joining the cause and becoming engaged.

As for grants, there were several the zone received — $700,000 for a “disconnected youth initiative” to help young people 14-24, an almost $2 million shared grant with Philadelphia (another zone) for at-risk students and $90,000 for tax-income assistance to low-income individuals and families.

Becker said the Promise Zone initiative has been a success and in 10-15 years will be studied as a model for community redevelopment.

A benefit regardless

Earning the 10-year designation garners full-time support from five AmeriCorps Vista members who are deployed to help communities reach their goals.

Additionally, a federal liaison is assigned to help with federal programs.

It’s an opportunity to bring attention to the “good things” about Jacksonville, said Jon Heymann, CEO of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission.

When federal funds dried up over the years for 70 afterschool programs, Heymann said local support stepped up — a move that attracts national attention and shows a community is serious about its problems.

He is one of many people on the Leadership Council for Jacksonville’s zone.

Stewart said others have shown enthusiasm for the idea, too. And, even if Jacksonville ends up missing the cut on the designation, engaging the group will make a long-term difference.

“We will engage anyway,” she said.

But from an outsider’s perspective, the city has a chance. Becker said Cook contacted her several times about the application process and from the sounds of it, “Jacksonville is prepared.”

After months of preparation, it’ll be out of the hands of Jacksonville leaders Friday.

An announcement for the third and final group is expected in the spring.


In the Zone

Thirteen cities, rural and tribal areas have received the federal Promise Zone designation. Seven more are expected to be named this year.


• San Antonio

• Los Angeles

• Philadelphia

• Southeastern Kentucky

• Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma


• Camden, N.J.

• Hartford, Conn.

• Indianapolis

• Minneapolis

• Sacramento, Calif.

• St. Louis

• South Carolina Low Country

• Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Ogala Sioux Tribe, S.D.

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