What a Recovery fueled “Green Impact Zone” can do for a troubled city

Authors: Barbara Grady

Troost Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, has been dividing rich and poor, black and
white, jobless and employed in this city since the days of Jim Crow when it was a legal line of segregation.

Today the neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue still bear the marks of disenfranchisement: abandoned homes, an unemployment rate that’s as high as 53 percent in some census tracts and gun violence that takes many young lives.

But tomorrow, this area could be a center of green jobs, retrofitted energy-efficient homes, a green transportation system and hopeful residents if Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver’s plans for using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding come to full fruition.

U.S. Rep. Cleaver, D-Missouri, has developed an ambitious plan for a “Green Impact Zone” to be established in a 150-block area east of Troost Avenue. He convinced the Kansas City Council to vote 13 to 0 to allocate millions of dollars of ARRA money and considerable city effort to this part of the city. And he’s rallied dozens of community organizations, residents and even businesses to work on making it happen. Now Cleaver’s office and the team from the community are submitting applications to numerous Recovery Act programs, supplementing work that’s already begun to bring a greener, healthier environment to this area and jobs to its residents.

At the heart of the plan for the Green Impact Zone is a massive home weatherization project that would put area residents to work conducting energy audits and weatherizing the 2,500 homes in the Zone neighborhoods.

“People would like to have those jobs,” said resident Jim Moore, pastor of tiny Olive Street Wesleyan Church, whose congregation of 15 people includes only four who currently work. “One of the biggest needs here is jobs that provide basic needs like clothing, shelter and transportation -- all of that is lacking,” continued Moore, who lost his day job as a computer programmer a couple years ago.

Another key piece of Green Impact Zone plan is developing a green bus rapid transit system that would use bio-diesel buses and green bus shelters. A third piece is developing a job training and employment program for ex-parolees in green building, park restoration and transit work. The list goes on and on.

Planning is still in the early stages and many stars must align for the goals of the Green Impact Zone to be realized. Skeptics exist. But Cleaver and many community activists view the Recovery Act as the best opportunity to come along in decades to turn around long neglected neighborhoods. Cleaver estimates that $200 million could be invested in the 150-block area if all goes well.

“With job training, neighborhood stabilization and infrastructure investments targeted here, ‘green’ is no longer an academic concept for someone else — it becomes a means to change peoples lives right here in our urban core,” Congressman Cleaver said to his constituents in a recent blog post.

The specific ARRA funding grants Rep. Cleaver and his teammates seek are mapped out on a document the community groups share over the Internet and post on bulletin boards at every community meeting.

It lists 23 grant programs. They include Weatherization Assistance and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants for the weatherization work. Training and hiring residents would be covered by several ARRA Workforce Investment grants, specifically ones for dislocated workers, YouthBuild and Adult Employment and Training. In the environmental categories they’ve applied for Brownfield Remediation, Clean Drinking Water and Army Corps of Engineers assistance. And for neighborhood revitalization they are seeking Neighborhood Stabilization grants, Homeless Prevention aid, assistance with Lead Paint Remediation, and Community Development Block Grants.

Because the Zone is home to many ex-parolees, a consortium of local government agencies and community groups filed an application to the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program to create a job training program for formerly incarcerated adults. They also filed applications with the COPS Hiring Grant to build community policing centers and Jobs Assistance for ex-parolees.

Work has already begun on the bus rapid transit system thanks to $27 million provided by Kansas City. Green Impact Zone planners want to supplement this city commitment with Recovery Act grants for Transit Capital and Surface Transportation grants to make sure the BRT and a bridge retrofit project are completed.

Kansas City Power & Light, the major utility in the area, is helping out with a commitment to build a smart electricity grid for the Green Impact Zone.

The logistics of applying to so many grant programs are so daunting that one partner, the Mid-America Regional Council which serves a nine-county region, has taken up coordinating all of the applications for the Green Impact Zone. But it will rely on numerous agencies and neighborhood groups to put the grants to good use.

People involved in the Green Impact zone planning as well as critics on the outside say the Zone will have its intended effect only if local neighborhood groups commit to its success.

”The focus of Green Impact Zone now is three things: weatherization, housing rehabilitation and employment. But there is a whole host of other programs that have to be initiated to make this last or have a long term affect,” said Dean Katerndahl, director of government interventions forum at the Mid-America Regional Council. “This is only going to work if the neighborhood groups and community organizations are really behind it and willing to run it,” he said.

Moore, the pastor who lives in the Green Impact Zone, said most people in his neighborhood didn’t know about the plan and he hadn’t heard much about it. “They need to publicize it,” for residents to benefit and get involved, he said. “Nobody’s heard of it.”

Fortunately there are three neighborhood organizations in the Zone area and a fourth community group, the BrushCreek Community Partners. People from all these organizations have been working hard on needs assessments and applications planning. Soon they expect to work on outreach.

“What we have running along Kansas City is Troost Avenue, a straight, long dividing line, a racial and economic dividing line,” said community activist Carol Grimaldi who heads up the Brush Creek Community Partners in the middle of what will be the Zone.

“Many of us are committed to breaking down this line,” Grimaldi continued. “It’s been very, very hard to get people to invest east of Troost Avenue. The Green Impact Zone will do a lot by improving the housing stock in ways that create affordable housing and providing opportunities for people to be employed in building rehab and weatherization. “

But she added that the plan is new and still being formed. “We haven’t gotten to the grassroots yet.”

Neighborhood activist David Crawford hopes to use Recovery Act Justice Assistance money to provide job training to ex-parolees.

“There’s going to be a huge transition in this neighborhood,” Crawford said. “Representative Cleaver’s heart is really in this.” Still, he added “It is going to be an uphill battle” in getting jobs for thousands of jobless residents of the area, many of whom “are very marginalized, very disenfranchised.”

Census data lists median household income in these neighborhoods as hovering around $24,000 a year but as low as $15,333 in one census tract and no higher than $37,235 per household in any of them based on 2000 data. Even today, many households make below $20,000 a year, according to Congressman Cleaver’s office.

But another active resident, Rodney Knott, president of the Manheim Park neighborhood association, said change will come to the east of Troost neighborhoods for the very reason that neighbors are getting involved. “Communities are becoming involved in the actual application of it. Neighborhood organizations are doing the outreach and will be part of the actual delivery,” he said. “I am very excited.”

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