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Politics & Government

Pittsburgh Seeks Promise Zone Designation, Priority in Federal Grant Awards

Flickr user Joseph A

“A child's zip code should never determine her destiny; but today, the community she grows up in impacts her odds of graduating high school, her health outcomes, and her lifetime economic opportunities.”

So reads the U.S. Department of Housing Urban Development’s web page on its Promise Zone program, which aims to counteract the effects of poverty.

The city of Pittsburgh is hoping to be named a Promise Zone this spring, when the Obama administration reveals which of the 123 cities, rural regions and tribal areas that applied for the designation have been chosen.

One of the perks of being designated as a Promise Zone is extra assistance in navigating federal programs.

“You get sort of a leg up on applying for federal grants and other programs. You get extra points when you’re applying for something,” said Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto. “You get a little bit of extra assistance when you’re seeking money and such from HUD, or the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice and so on.”

AmeriCorps VISTA will also deploy five members to each Promise Zone, to assist in developing programs that meet community needs.

In order to be considered, a city or region must identify areas of concentrated poverty in which to focus revitalization efforts. In Pittsburgh, the proposed Promise Zone includes South Hills neighborhoods, the Hill District and parts of Hazelwood.

“Mayor Peduto talks a lot about how there are two Pittsburghs: one Pittsburgh that has been very successful and another Pittsburgh that hasn’t been able to come to the party yet,” McNulty said. “Promise Zone is one of the ways we can help people from struggling communities be a part of the success that’s happening elsewhere.”

The first round of Promise Zones was announced last January, and includes Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation in southeast Oklahoma.

Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, said one of the greatest benefits has been having a dedicated liaison which helps identify funding opportunities across twelve different federal agencies.

“Staff from those agencies are able to identify opportunities for us where the community might benefit, and in a number of cases, there are points added for projects that are applying for federal funding,” Gladstein said. “So although no funding is guaranteed with the Promise Zone designation, if you have a good project, you get kind of a leg up.

She also said the designation has created added value beyond the perks provided by the federal government. Those looking to invest in West Philadelphia have seen the designation as evidence of a broad coalition of public and private partners working to revitalize the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“We have about one hundred partner organizations that participate, and they are beginning to raise funds both from private foundations and public resources, and in a number of cases, the Promise Zone designation was critical to that fundraising,” Gladstein said.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey has written a letter to HUD Secretary Julián Castro asking him to support Pittsburgh’s application, but Pittsburgh is not the only Pennsylvania city hoping to be chosen this round. The cities of Harrisburg, Allentown, Reading and New Castle also put their names in the hat.

Eight additional Promise Zones will be announced this spring.