Council committee offers limited help to activists seeking jobs, housing for city residents

Posted: 12:06 AM EDT Aug 15, 2013
Allentown CEDC

A city council committee promised to help a group of Allentown community activists get answers about job opportunities in the downtown area.

But the committee stopped well short of supporting the group's push for a written community benefits agreement that would guarantee city residents a certain amount of jobs and affordable housing in areas such as the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, where a hockey arena and other major projects are being built.

Five people spent almost an hour and a half Wednesday night pressing council's community and economic development committee to take up their cause.

Most of their frustration was over jobs information they believe is being kept from them by city and business officials.

Joshua Chisholm, executive director of Congregations United for Neighborhood Action, wanted to know where council stood on using such "tools" as community benefits agreements with developers and business owners, which he said could be used to cut into the unemployment rate in center city.

He handed out an information sheet with the headline: "Where are the jobs?" It compared Pennsylvania's unemployment rate -- 7.89 percent -- with the unemployment rate in the 130-acre Neighborhood Improvement Zone -- 19.2 percent.

Ce-Ce Gerlach, who has tried unsuccessfully to get the authority overseeing the building of the hockey arena to consider a community benefits agreement, also spoke to the committee.

"We have yet to get answers" about the number of jobs that have been created and are going to be created in the NIZ, she said. "People know, but that information is not being disseminated to the average Joes," Gerlach claimed.

She also chided the committee, saying, "You should already know."

Gerlach said officials at Lehigh Carbon Community College she spoke to do not know when a promised employment center in the NIZ is opening, or where in LCCC's building in downtown Allentown it will be located.

The Rev. Rick Guhl warned the committee of "a prosperity that leaves a demoralized city," while Ernie Atiyeh suggested the city start its own employment company so developers and entrepreneurs would have direct access to city residents in need of work.

Atiyeh also said of Chisholm and Gerlach, "These people are getting shoveled around, and it's a disgrace."

Committee members Julio Guridy, Peter Schweyer and Joe Davis listened sympathetically. Schweyer said, "I don't agree that nothing has been done, but I do recognize there is a disconnect on how to access [jobs information]. … We should be reducing the barrier between job opportunities and the general public."

Guridy said, "We need to have the key players in the room … so we can ask questions these folks brought to us." He then asked Davis to set up a meeting, adding, "If we try to shed light on the issue, we may help the people be prepared [to apply for jobs]."

However, when asked about council discussing a community benefits agreement, Guridy replied gingerly, "I don't know if we're at a point to do that."