Inside the EEZ Part 2: Where is blight? And where isn't it?

May 10, 2012

Regional Economic Development Inc., or REDI, proposed an Enhanced Enterprise Zone in Columbia in February. The state program offers tax incentives to businesses investing in economically depressed areas. On Monday, Columbia City Council voted to throw out the original proposal, and possibly start the process over. It’s not yet clear whether the same area would be proposed for an EEZ, but KBIA’s Sarah Redohl analyzed the old data to see how it measured up to the blight designation. She explains the original proposal didn’t include some of Columbia’s poorest neighborhoods.

A light spring breeze brings the smell of freshly mowed grass through the open windows of James and Marsha Smith’s home just north of Columbia.

“We moved here when our daughter was about four months old, so we’ve been here for about ten years,” Marsha Smith said.

Red Bud trees and Douglass pears line the streets of the middle-class subdivision. Yet the Smith’s subdivision was included within the proposed Enhanced Enterprise Zone.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘what the heck about our neighborhood could be considered blighted?’ Everybody pretty much keeps up their properties… They’re nice homes and people are proud of them,” Marsha Smith said.

Blighted. That’s the standard an area must fulfill to become an EEZ. Unemployment, poverty data, safety and infrastructure—or a combination of any of those factors—are considered when determining an EEZ. Mike Brooks is the president of REDI.

“This is an important program for the community. It’s unfortunate that we have to use that ‘blighted’ wording. I mean, that’s unfortunate,” Brooks said.

There isn’t another option. The EEZ must include entire census block groups, rather than just the areas that could be used for manufacturing development. The Smiths live in a block group with land zoned for industrial development to the north and south. James says that’s why his neighborhood was included in the proposed EEZ.

 “They’re far-reaching zones just to pick up a little area there and a little area there. In the process, they’ve encompassed all these, huge, nice residential areas like ours in between all of this,” James Smith said.

Independent assessment of the factors of blight show that the original map didn’t always match up with the most distressed communities in Columbia. Free and Reduced Lunch program rates at the elementary school level are one indicator of poverty. The EEZ map included Benton Elementary School, which has the highest free and reduced lunch rates in the city at nine out of 10 children. It also included significant portions of three school attendance areas that use free and reduced lunch the least, and excluded large portions of some of the poorest school attendance areas. That’s the hard data, but to Marsha, it’s visible just by looking around Columbia.

“It just doesn’t seem, when we were talking about it, like it really fits most of the areas that I know of in Columbia. But it seems like most of the areas that I would consider to be blighted, they’re not even part of this EEZ,” Marsha Smith said.

For a measure of safety, KBIA examined crime and building code violations. The proposed EEZ would have captured most crime hotspots in Columbia, but fell slightly short—it excluded a major hot spot of crime in Columbia, based on 2011 Columbia Police Department data, the area near the Columbia Mall.

Building code violations are most dense within the original EEZ proposal, but again there were exceptions. The West Boulevard neighborhood was not in the EEZ despite numerous violations, where some areas with very few violations were included.

For 6th ward city council member Barbara Hoppe, She says the EEZ should be more narrowly tailored, but says she understands why the numbers didn’t match up in the first proposal.

“It’s a double focus: those criteria and, ‘where do you want to create incentives for manufacturing?’ If our first ward has the lower economic employment (data), but that’s not where we want the manufacturing jobs to occur, then we have to look someplace else,” Hoppe said.

Not only do the areas within the EEZ have to be blighted, but they also need to have room for industrial development. Marsha Smith says she doesn’t see any benefit to her family and her neighborhood

 “Most of my neighbors already have a job,” Marsha Smith said.

Check back to Friday for the third part of this three-part series on Enhanced Enterprise Zones— which will examine the purpose of the EEZ program as a whole. You can also hear this series this Wednesday-Friday on KBIA’s Morning Edition.

Click through the images above to see the data Sarah Redohl collected for this series in chart form. Or you can download these raw .xls files of a year of poverty data in Columbia and the last 2 years of complaints to Columbia's Office of Neighborhood Services