To combat poverty in their poorest neighborhoods, the cities of Columbia and Sumter five years ago jointly applied for a federal grant that promised to deliver $100 million to the two cities from 1999 to 2009.

The “empowerment zone” grants were available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Columbia-Sumter Empowerment Zone became one of 15 empowerment zones in the nation. It joined the ranks of those in Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and other large cities.

And it would be the only joint zone in the country.

The cities’ application was accepted in 1999, largely through the efforts of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, who represents Sumter and parts of Columbia.

The announcement was a triumph for the cities’ leadership and Clyburn. Then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, flew to Sumter to seal the deal.

The opportunities that $100 million would make in the two cities seemed staggering.

The concept was unique — championed by former HUD secretary Jack Kemp during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

The idea was to empower people at the neighborhood level to decide how to spend federal anti-poverty grants. The grants would be coupled with tax incentives for businesses locating in the zone or firms hiring people who lived there.

But the promise faded almost from the start.

The first seven empowerment zones, designated in the mid-1990s, received the full $100 million from Congress. But several zones, such as Atlanta’s and Cincinnati’s, were dogged by controversy. Atlanta’s was even disbanded because of misspending.

Also, the boards of the eight newer zones were slow to spend the first installments of the grants given to them, in part because many decided to build programs from scratch.

Congress, leery of scandal and aware that the first installments were being spent slowly, did not fully fund the eight “Round II” empowerment zones.

Then George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000, and by 2002 all funding for the zones had been cut.

In five years, Sumter and Columbia have received $24.9 million, half of what the cities expected by this time.

The two cities have split the money 70-30, with Columbia receiving about $17 million.

So far, Columbia has spent $9,120,178 of that.

— Jeff Wilkinson