Empowerment To The People

Federal empowerment zones have long been promoted as one way to develop entrepreneurship in the inner city. Now comes a voice from the trenches who says, in essence, nonsense.

In fact, argues Dorothy Pitman Hughes in her new book, Wake Up and Smell the Dollars! Whose Inner-City Is This Anyway! (Amber, $18.95), the nation's empowerment zones--which have provided $900 million in low-interest loans and tax breaks to 15 urban areas since 1994--draw corporate competitors that kill off existing local businesses.

"Empowerment zones were supposed to bring us within the power structure," says Hughes, who opened Harlem Office Supply 15 years ago, and was denied a $365,000 loan by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corp. that would have helped her add PCs to her product line. And she laments the recent closings of long-time Harlem businesses such as Bill's Hardware & Paints, while the $65 million Harlem USA shopping mall rises on W. 125th Street. Empowerment zones "train people to be consumers. We need to train people to be owners," she says.

Zone CEO Terry C. Lane counters that the outfit has "supported existing businesses" with more than $100 million in local, low-interest loans over the past five years. "We do finance mom-and-pop businesses," says Lane.

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