In 1997, Lola Lewis, 55, was working as a copy machine technician at a school in Baltimore. She enjoyed her job, but it didn’t offer any benefits.

Lewis had been searching for the next open door for a while. Then she heard about an opportunity to be trained at Chesapeake Biological Labs, which offered a good opportunity to land a job with benefits.

The program was only available to Baltimore residents in the Empowerment Zone, a federal program that provided distressed neighborhoods–”initially, in six large cities–”with tax credits for businesses and $100 million in social service block grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1994.

That was Lewis’ open door. In September 1997, she began hands-on training at Chesapeake Biological Labs, now Cangene BioPharma. By January 1998, she had a new job–”with benefits.

The program at the lab incorporated many of the elements that led Baltimore’s Empowerment Zone to be rated among the most successful among the six cities. Active community engagement, an independent entity overseeing the zone and an eye toward sustainability have all contributed to its impressive performance that has continued in the years after funding ended in 2004.

Between 1998 and 2006, Baltimore’s Empowerment Zone had an average of 1,831 jobs created or retained per year, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data. This rate was more than four times higher than the rate in Chicago, which had 405 jobs created or retained between 1998 and 2008, and more than eight times higher than the rate in New York between 1998 and 2009.

Baltimore’s model is particularly instructive during a time when President Barack Obama’s administration is considering ways to assist the nation’s beleaguered cities, many of which were struggling even before the economic downturn began in earnest.

“Baltimore just got it right from the beginning,” said Michael Rich, who has written extensively about the Empowerment Zone as an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

Richard Clinch, director of economic research for the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, said the fact that the Empower Baltimore Management Corp., which was created to manage the zone, was made up of government and community people helped it succeed.

And so did the corporation’s status as an independent entity, according to Robert Embry, the corporation’s board member. This autonomy allowed it to focus closely on the zone and its residents.

Empower Baltimore also launched six village centers that each had a staff member to help people find workforce training and jobs. If the staff couldn’t locate jobs, they would help residents secure job training. “We didn’t care how they did it, as long as they were finding people jobs and training,” Embry said, adding that the staff was held accountable for how many people they helped.

Residents weren’t steered to just any training program but to opportunities with a real chance of employment after completing the program, said Decatur Miller, another board member of Empower Baltimore.

“The best training was the customized training,” Miller said. “We would go to an employer and ask them, –˜If we paid for the training, would they hire those people on after the training was over?'”

It’s been a different story in Chicago’s Empowerment Zone.

From the beginning, communication between the Empowerment Zone, the city and the communities was rocky. Working with more than 255 community agencies didn’t help, either, according to Wallace Goode, director of the Community Service Center at the University of Chicago and the former executive director for Chicago’s Empowerment Zone.

Although Chicago, like Baltimore, had a planning council for its Empowerment Zone project that was run by local government officials and community members, the city meshed the zone programs with other government projects and saw it as just “another revenue stream that the government had to control,” Rich said.

A 2001 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report concluded that Chicago was the only city that experienced job loss from 1995 to 2000 within its Empowerment Zone.

Lewis, whose earnings have grown from $20,000 a year in 1998 to $47,000, is grateful for the success of Baltimore’s Empowerment Zone. “Had this door not opened for me, I would probably still be at the school with no benefits,” she said.