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‘Black Jobs Matter’ play may have opened door to enterprising solution

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Sam Waltz

Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

“Enterprise Zones” should be the new operative phrase in Delaware’s Economic Development and Full Employment strategies, according to Robert “Bob” Elder, former founding president of both Christiana Bank & Trust Co. (now part of WSFS Bank) and Delaware Sterling Bank.

“Delaware has a hard-core unemployment issue, and our state, our community, needs to put 7,000 black men in the City of Wilmington to work,” Elder told me in a recent interview.

A rock-ribbed conservative politically and philosophically, Elder is part of a senior generation of strategic business and civic leaders who are so positively progressive in their approach that they sound like a cross between a leftover 1960s hippie and presidential nominee contender Bernie Sanders.

Elder, now in his early 70s, and a marketing exec for the Santora CPA Group, in fact was a U.S. Navy officer and Swift Boat captain during the Vietnam War, part of the group that became activists who consolidated efforts to tank the 2004 presidential campaign of now U.S. Secretary of State, then U.S. Sen. John Kerry for what they regarded as his failures as a Naval officer post-Vietnam.

It was Elder, working with Gov. Jack Markell as well as former DEDO Secretary Alan Levin, and a variety of community leaders who put together late February’s world premiere of a new play, “Black Jobs Matter” at the Baby Grand in Wilmington.

With a predominantly black cast, and written by a black playwright, “Black Jobs Matter” is unusual as a socially themed play in calling for a specific legislative remedy – Enterprise Zones – as a solution to the hard-core, chronic unemployment and underemployment in the City that seems to have taken so many black men, Elder feels, from their traditional roles in the household as husbands, partners, fathers and grandfathers.

Although “Black Jobs Matter” does not speak to the specifics of Enterprise Zones, it notes the unique contribution they can make to melting the barriers that encourage and sustain such hard core unemployment, aggravated in many instances by brushes (to all-out egregious engagement) with the criminal justice system that seems to have left so many with criminal records that become a barrier to employment.

“Frankly, the former GM plant on Boxwood Road just cries out to be a central location for an enterprise zone in the Wilmington area and Northern Delaware,” Elder said. “Such space directly in the city is hard to find, but it’s close enough to where the people are who need jobs that it can serve as an effective catalyst as a place to create those jobs.”

So, what’s needed to put together an enterprise zone? Elder points to a Wikipedia definition as the best:

“An urban enterprise zone is an area in which policies to encourage economic growth and development are implemented. Urban enterprise zone policies generally offer tax concession, infrastructure incentives, and reduced regulations to attract investments and private companies into the zones.”

“Urban enterprise zones are areas where companies can locate free of certain local, state, and federal taxes
and restrictions. Urban enterprise zones are intended to encourage development in blighted neighborhoods through tax and regulatory relief to entrepreneurs and investors who launch businesses
in the area.”

“In other countries, regions with similar economic policies are often referred as export-procession zones, tax and duty-free zones “¦ ”

While taxes and duties arguably may be less of a barrier issue in Delaware, still Elder sees some tax relief as well as “right-to-work” as being critical to the success, that is, an absence of a requirement to unionize a work force, unless the employer prefers it.

“We have too many people on transfer payments (e.g., unemployment, welfare, WIC) instead of earning a wage,” Elder said. “The real answer to getting an economic change is putting the people to work who have been economically disenfranchised.”

“We had 3,000 people working at GM Boxwood Road,” Elder added. “Now, it’s tumbleweeds. No one is there.”

“This has to be a long-term thing, with a willingness of a company to come here. Work in an auto plant does take an education. So maybe it’s a two-year training program, work a half a day, learn a half a day,” Elder said.

“From the government’s point of view, for every unemployed black you employ who has been living in Wilmington for two years, you grant an investment tax credit good for two times that man’s salary. For the employer, it’s zero labor cost. And the Delaware Department of Labor can provide the training funds.”

At the end of the play “Black Jobs Matter,” the audience – an unusual combination of inner-city residents and the business and civic elite opinion-leaders – was on its feet. Gov. Markell, who came early to talk to the audience about his anti-recidivism programs, had already left, although he learned of the enterprise zones message.

From a public policy perspective, it may have fallen on deaf ears. From a public point of view, it seems to be a great idea seeking political allies.

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