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Economic Hope Glows in Bridgeport

Long an island of poverty in Connecticut, the city has retired its debt, launched self-help programs, and is taking aim at a federal grant

DAVID CARSON looks out from his 16th-floor office on some monuments of Bridgeport's past - the defunct General Electric complex and the yellow-brick Singer Sewing Machine plant, whose giant ``Now Leasing'' banner has flapped in the breezes off Long Island Sound for 10 years.

Mr. Carson is president of People's Bank, which has 75 branches throughout Connecticut. Lots of other businesses have left this city in recent years, and his bank could have, too. In the late 1980s and early '90s, at the height of Bridgeport's bankruptcy scare - a story that made headlines here and abroad - four banks headquartered in Bridgeport failed, deepening a financial crisis that still clouds the city's reputation.

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For the past two years, however, Bridgeport has had a balanced budget, a feat that Mayor Joseph Ganim is trumpeting as he prepares to run for governor of Connecticut. The city's deficit was $18.6 million when Mr. Ganim won the mayor's job in 1991.

But Bridgeport is still saddled with the highest property-tax rates in Connecticut and a dwindling tax base. A drive through some crumbling, boarded-up neighborhoods reinforces this city's image as an island of poverty in an otherwise affluent region.

Yet hope is being rekindled here. Bridgeport may never again be the industrial hub that circus impresario P.T. Barnum, a local boy who made very good, helped forge a century ago. But this largest of Connecticut's cities - a little more than 140,000 people squeezed into 15 square miles - is clearly starting to reshape itself.

``The potential is the people,'' Carson says, noting that local schools, for example, are ``moving in the right direction.'' Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools James Connelly says the city's educational system is doing remarkably well, considering that half or more of its students come from low-income families whose first language is not English. The high school graduation rate is about 70 percent, considerably better than comparable Connecticut cities like Hartford and New Haven.

But the biggest generator of hope over the last few months has been a vigorous effort to make Bridgeport one of six cities in the United States to be designated ``empowerment zones'' by the Clinton administration. That would mean $100 million in federal funds for everything from job creation to child care.

The process of piecing together a proposal by the June application deadline has mobilized people from all corners of civic life - neighborhood organizations, the business community, churches, nonprofit agencies, and government. It has ``probably raised the kinds of questions that have to be dealt with,'' says Brian Langdon, president of Family Services Woodfield, the city's oldest nonprofit social-services agency. ``It has involved the citizens, who should have more to say about the city.''

Predictably, for a town with a history of fractious politics, the process has also generated disagreement. Some activists, such as Joshua Nessen, executive director of Greater Bridgeport Interfaith Action, say the city's ``establishment'' - centered in City Hall, the business community, and the local Democratic Party -

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is trying to cut off the empowerment-zone process from the grass-roots groups that have been its creative ``engine.''

Paul Timpanelli, head of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council responds: ``The issues are legitimate, but they'll be resolved.''

No matter how that controversy is resolved, and regardless of who wins the zone designation, Bridgeport is getting a big helping of ideas. Economic development plans range from a circus theme park (building on the Barnum heritage) to a revamped commercial corridor along Seaview Avenue. The empowerment zone working group that is concentrating on economic development and transportation (one of eight such panels) wants to target key industries, such as entertainment and foreign trade. Training, education, and investment would all be aimed at those ``targets.''

Another idea bouncing around in Bridgeport is casino gambling. The city's director of planning, Michael Freimuth, stresses that gambling will not be the city's salvation, but just another source of economic growth. In any case, the state will have the final say on casinos, and Gov. Lowell Weicker has been firmly opposed.

Ideas are bubbling in the social-services realm, too. A far-reaching experiment in addressing the range of problems facing inner-city youths is based at the Luis Munoz Marin School on Bridgeport's East Side. The police once dubbed this part of town ``Little Beirut.''

The Munoz Marin School contrasts sharply with its blighted surroundings. The school is a sparkling edifice of red brick, white stone, and glass. Through its Children at Risk program (CAR), youths in danger of dropping out of school or turning to gangs, drugs, or crime are teamed with mentors who befriend them, get to know their families, and help sort out personal and academic problems.

The CAR program at the school is one of six around the country being sponsored by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York. In Bridgeport, the program works hand-in-hand with police officers assigned to the East Side neighborhood. The officers teach antidrug courses at the school, and kids are welcome at their storefront community-policing post. Officers, mentors, and school officials often compare notes on the progress being made by particular children.

Brenda Smith, president of Bridgeport Futures Initiates, a community-wide agency helping families and children, says anti-drug and anti-violence programs in the East Side and other parts of town represent a concerted effort to ``give the city's children the best possible chance they can have.''

``In Bridgeport, we're trying to say, `enough is enough,' '' she says. ``This city is a microcosm of what can happen. If Bridgeport, with its 140,000 people, can say no to gangs and drugs, maybe there's hope for cities of 3 or 4 million.''

Mayor Ganim says his community is well on its way to a comeback. ``It bottomed out and it's working toward what urban America needs to do.''

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