A neighborhood manager for a 20-year-old federal program is seeking to spread awareness about the $1.2 million the program is disbursing annually to local businesses.
“It’s interesting to see that this Empowerment Zone has been around for so long, but most people don’t know that it exists,” said Laura Benshoff, who works out of the Philadelphia Department of Commerce as neighborhood manager for the American Street Empowerment Zone.
The Empowerment Zone program was launched in 1994 by the Clinton administration to revitalize post-industrial areas, and $79 million was awarded to Philadelphia, which was split between three Empowerment Zones – in West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, and along the American Street corridor.
The American Street Empowerment Zone boundaries are Girard Avenue to the south, 6th Street to the west, over Dauphin Street, and up 4th Street, to the north by Lehigh Avenue, and to the east by Kensington Avenue down to Front Street, along Norris Street and down Frankford Avenue.
In recent months, Benshoff said that $550,000 of the Empowerment Zone’s $1.2 million annual budget was awarded as grants for businesses in the area that are hiring locally.
One was Veyko, a metallurgy company that created the unique benches at the 8th Street station of the Market-Frankford Line. Veyko opening a new workshop in the area of the Empowerment Zone, Benshoff said. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Another grant recipient was local developer Paul Maiello, for his work at 310 Master St., which has been developed into a bean-roasting facility for Reanimator Coffee and an office for a tech company, with a third business tenant expected soon. Maiello did not respond to requests for comment.
The third grant recipient was Finanta, a financial education and lending service based at Oxford and North 2nd streets. Finanta President Luis Mora did not respond to requests for comment.
These recipients join past recipient Chaes Food, located at North American and Dauphin Streets. Chaes moved to its current, larger location in 2007 with financial support from the Empowerment Zone.
“The Empowerment Zone is unique. It’s located between Northern Liberties and Fishtown, where we’ve seen tremendous development. It’s the next area to be developed in the community,” said Maria Gonzalez, chair of the Empowerment Zone’s Community Trust Board since 2005 and president of the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises (HACE).
“I’ve lived here for 17 years, so I can honestly tell you that I’ve seen a marked improvement of the physical conditions of the neighborhood,” she continued.
The Empowerment Zone offers funds exclusively within that area to local businesses, and also can offer funding to activities such as tax preparation and job training. But the biggest growth in the neighborhood seems likely to be in the housing market.
The planned Oxford Mills project by D3 Development at Oxford and Front streets will include 114 units, with lower rents offered to teachers. D3 Development is also behind a project to build 10 row-homes at 120 W. Oxford St., across the street from Oxford Mills.
The planned Liberty Square project by Blackstone Development will bring 247 units to Germantown Avenue and Thompson Street. Nearby, Soko Lofts by the Canus Corporation is expected to bring another 311 apartments to 2nd and Thompson streets.
“That momentum is something people are very excited about,” Benshoff said of the housing in development for the area. “I don’t think that clashes with what we’re trying to do. There are existing industrial actors in the area that we don’t want to force out. But they can co-exist.”
The American Street Empowerment Zone area falls within the City Planning Commission’s (CPC) Lower North District, which stretches from the Schuylkill River to the eastern edge of the Empowerment Zone and is currently being re-districted so that zoning matches the current uses of the land. But no one type of use will push out any other, said city planner David Fecteau.
“If you’re looking at the general American Street Empowerment Zone, there’s room for just about anything we could ever want,” Fecteau said. “The city does have a policy to preserve some amount of industry within the American Street corridor; it’s debatable how much and how far … There’s some existing industrial uses. They do fit in, and we don’t want them to leave.”
As housing developments ramp up, the Empowerment Zone will continue offering assistance to businesses. The Empowerment Zone also offers smaller grants to businesses, such as $5,000 grants for beautification, an “emergency grant” for non-profits facing a funding crisis, and a storefront improvement grant, which can provide up to $8,000 in funds to match investments by business-owners made in improving their business’ exterior, or up to $12,000 for businesses on a corner or across multiple storefronts.
As Benshoff works with program manager Aiisha Herring-Miller at the Department of Commerce, and Gonzalez, future priorities for the Zone’s $1.2 million yearly budget will be determined by the needs of the community.
ldquo;The focus of the funding that we provide is in economic development,” Gonzalez said. “Residents support activities that really support jobs for people in the communities, or provide an economic benefit that puts money in people’s pockets.”