As newly designated ‘Promise Zone,’ Camden poised for boost in federal aid

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 Camden joins parts of West Philadelphia, including Mantua, as a federally designated  Promise Zone. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Camden joins parts of West Philadelphia, including Mantua, as a federally designated Promise Zone. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The crime and poverty-plagued city of Camden is now one of 13 “Promise Zones” across the country.

Elected and government officials are, not surprisingly, applauding the announcement, expected to bring millions in federal aid to the struggling community and, hopefully, chip away at decades of decay in the process.

“We could see some real game-changing results in the next five years,” said Holly Leicht, a regional administrator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Whether that prediction will be borne out is anybody’s guess.

Launched by the Obama Administration last year, the federal program is aimed at helping member communities become safer, cleaner and more economically viable.

The program, however, doesn’t deal in concrete benchmarks for, say, when Camden should see a drop in violent crime. Success is more closely tied to what a community chooses to tackle and if it can secure funding for that aim.

Promise Zones also don’t automatically receive any federal dollars. Instead, places such as Camden get a leg up – “a competitive advantage” — when it comes to competing for federal grants related to issues including education, wellness and crime.

Communities also get a liaison to help navigate that complex landscape and a handful of AmeriCorps volunteers to help implement program initiatives.

“The idea is that these various grant programs that HUD and other federal agencies participate in, build on one another. And so, by the time you hit Promise Zone designation, you have shown that you have momentum,” said Leicht.

In West Philadelphia, the program is kickstarting change in several small neighborhoods, though most of it not of the visible variety.

To date, roughly $30 million has come into a Promise Zone created there last year, helping fund programs related to job training, education and healthy eating.

For Mantua resident De’Wayne Drummond, that’s not a bad start. He’s optimistic, though, that there will be bigger payoffs down the line.

“A bunch of small wins and battles help you to be victorious in the war. It’s a process,” said Drummond.

Down the road, Eva Gladstein, executive director the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, said places like Mantua will likely transform physically, but also, hopefully, see changes that’ll help make it a healthier community for years to come.

“We’re hoping that education opportunities are improved, both from birth through high school, and we’ll see more residents connected to jobs,” said Gladstein.

Promise Zones hang onto that designation for at least a decade.

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