City development group in question

With its multimillion dollar weight in federal grant gold, Empower New Haven is an ample reservoir of purchasing power in lagging city neighborhoods.

But after three hours of wading page by page through its progress report before members of the Board of Aldermen Monday night, community leaders continued to question Empower New Haven’s level of grassroots involvement and use of government funds.

Empower New Haven, a not-for-profit organization, was entrusted 18 months ago with the power to administer $100 million in federal housing grants over 10 years. When Empower New Haven entered into this contract with the city, several aldermen said that without any oversight, such an arrangement could allow the semiautonomous organization to run amok. To allay these fears, the board then passed an amendment that required Empower New Haven to report its progress to the city by November 2001.

The empowerment zone under Empower New Haven’s jurisdiction includes sections of the Dixwell, Dwight, Fair Haven, Hill, Newhallville and West Rock neighborhoods. But Empower New Haven has spent only $2 million of nearly $19 million budgeted in these neighborhoods.

“It’s in the bank. It’s literally not being put to use,” said Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison.

Sherri Killins, president and CEO of Empower New Haven, and Chairman Roger Joyce answered questions before the board regarding Empower New Haven’s spending initiatives, including a program to provide laptops to 160 fifth graders at two New Haven middle schools.

Questions also arose regarding a letter written by 13 Yale students, including Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04, urging the Board of Alderman to address Empower New Haven’s lack of grassroots community involvement. Through discussions with residents in empowerment zones, the students discovered that most were unaware of Empower New Haven’s presence and potential to effect change in the city.

“I’m not sure what they want me to do,” Killins said. “They just presented the problem, not a solution.”

But Shayna Strom ’02, who signed the letter, said the students are not in any position to propose answers.

“It’s not our job to provide them with solutions,” Strom said. “We don’t claim to speak with authority or perfect knowledge.”

In a push to increase involvement in neighborhoods, Empower New Haven hired a director of marketing and communications in April. Killins said Empower New Haven is not as concerned about increasing its name recognition. The organization instead wants residents to be aware of the services it funds, regardless of whether they know the money originates in Empower New Haven.

But Strom said the organization needs to incorporate residents’ input into their decision-making.

“It’s not a marketing issue,” Strom said. “If this is an organization that claims to speak with the community’s voice, it needs to do that.”

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