West Rock says anti-blight program lagging

Almost two years after it was formed, Empower New Haven, the group created to revitalize the city’s ailing neighborhoods, is just beginning its work, but some community leaders say they are not willing to wait for the organization to implement change.

Empower New Haven oversees grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated for six New Haven neighborhoods. The most troubled of those six has been the blighted West Rock neighborhood in the northwest part of the city, between West Rock State Park and the Hamden town line. West Rock leaders said their community, which is physically severed from the rest of the city by the park, is also isolated economically and politically.

“People out here feel totally neglected, and many have given up,” said Shirley Lawrence, president of the West Rock Tenant Association. “[City officials] would come out and promise us lots of things but nothing has changed.”

Lawrence said Empower New Haven needs to provide employment, transportation and activies for area youths. Lawrence, who lives on Brookside, has seen little activity from the agency.

“I haven’t seen them that active in our community,” she said.

Roger Joyce, chairman of Empower New Haven’s board of directors, said at a dinner with Yale students Wednesday that among the neighborhoods that are part of New Haven’s federal Empowerment Zone, West Rock concerned him the most.

“West Rock hasn’t been as active as the others,” Joyce said. “They have been physically and emotionally isolated from the city, but our mindset is to knit together rather than isolate.”

Other leaders of empowerment zone neighborhoods, such as the Dwight area, said Empower New Haven has been active in their communities.

Joyce said Empower New Haven hopes to reduce unemployment by funding job-training programs.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. urged the agency to begin implementing its plans for the neighborhoods.

“They’ve been doing a good job doing what they should be doing in their first year and a half, but they haven’t begun to spend the funds,” DeStefano said. “Sometimes the pace slows down a little bit and they now need to pick up the pace.”

Empower New Haven’s work was initially stymied by Congress’s reluctance to fund the empowerment zone program fully. An empowerment zone city is supposed to get $100 million over a 10-year period. New Haven, however, has received no more than $5 million per year since obtaining the designation in 1999. This year, New Haven will finally be given the full $10 million.

Empower New Haven CEO Sherri Killins said the organization wasn’t able to fulfill certain initiatives as a result of reduced funding.

“The reduced funds forced us to start small and fund at lower levels,” Killins said. “Despite our newness, we’ve moved forward and created strategies addressing community issues.”

Killins criticized Ward 1 aldermanic candidate Ben Healey ’04 who said Empower New Haven should be using its money for neighborhood improvements instead of casework.

“The money comes with clear restrictions as to how we can apply it,” Killins said. “What we’re doing is not casework but, rather, providing access to jobs and economic development.”

Healey could not be reached for comment.

New Haven first attempted to become an empowerment zone in 1994 and was one of 15 economically distressed cities to be chosen out of 217 applications by HUD in 1998.

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