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Council backs application for Obama Promise Zone

Friday, March 6, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

The Austin City Council threw its support behind an Obama administration initiative Thursday when it backed the city’s application to have a large tract of East Austin dubbed a “Promise Zone” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Council members passed the item after motions to postpone and send it to committee floundered.

If Austin’s project were chosen, the city would receive federal resources to revitalize communities running north from Dove Springs to Colony Park and then west to Rundberg, a stretch that the city called in its application a “crescent of poverty.” The Austin Independent School District is the lead applicant, along with numerous partners including the city, Travis County and the United Way of Greater Austin. The group submitted the application in November.

President Barack Obama announced the Promise Zone Initiative in his 2013 State of the Union address. Local officials were asked to lay out a plan detailing how they would pair federal resources with local assets, such as businesses and community leaders, to increase employment and education in their Promise Zone.

The program would assign five AmeriCorps volunteers to each area that receives federal designation. The areas will also receive preference when applying for certain federal programs.

Council’s vote marked its second try at a Promise Zone application. Council members unanimously approved an application for last year’s Promise Zone competition. However, Austin did not win the designation, losing out to five other parts of the country: San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Some Council members said they are still not sure where the city’s application had originated, even after discussing the item in this week’s work session. Council Member Ora Houston said that before she could vote, she wanted to understand the intent behind seeking the federal designation.

“I had an opportunity to meet with the superintendent and the president of the board of trustees, and I am still confused about where this originated, where did it come from, who was driving to get this Promise Zone designation,” said Houston. “They’re going to go back and try to figure out for me where it came from, because they’re not really sure either.”

Houston was one of three Council members who voted against approving the item.

According to minutes, the AISD board of trustees sent discussion of the application to a joint subcommittee at its December meeting. At that point, the city’s Promise Zone application had already been submitted.

Council Member Don Zimmerman expressed concern that should Austin be deemed a Promise Zone, Council’s support would mean committing funds. Referencing the memorandum of understanding, he said, “There is an expectation that there could be commitments of people and funds.”

City staff called the approval of the item a formal agreement. They said receiving a Promise Zone designation is a highly competitive process, and if Austin is able to acquire the federal resources, the city has made a commitment.

The federal government will announce six urban Promise Zone communities in early April.

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