Birmingham’s Opportunity Zones must create opportunity for all

Press Coverage: Roy S. Johnson, AL.com
12, April 2019
Stonewall building

The long-dormant Stonewall Building, located at 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue North in Birmingham, is one of the city's first Opportunity Zone projects. (The Birmingham News)

This is an opinion column.

Ask the 210,710 or so citizens of Birmingham what opportunity means to them, and you’ll likely get close to that many responses.

Opportunity is personal.

To some, it means the opportunity to obtain a quality education or get a job that allows them to sustain their family, or to love (and marry) the person they want to love (and marry).

Some long for the opportunity to feel safe in their home and neighborhood—to see where they live rid of blight and depravity. And potholes.

Some crave the opportunity to launch a business, produce a film or television show or pursue an artistic dream with like-minded creatives.

To some the word means having the opportunity to, yes, make money, to invest their dollars in projects and products that provide a positive return.

To each of us in this city, opportunity should mean this: Demanding the opportunity to grow, to evolve, to move beyond those traits seemingly embedded in our DNA that have long held—and still hold—us back.

Maybe we can agree opportunity in Birmingham should be an amalgam of all-of-the-above, so each of us ultimately receives our most desired opportunity.

If you’re not familiar with Opportunity Zones, school up.

They’re what the government calls “economically distressed” U.S. Census tracts—read: Po’ neighborhoods—where new investments may qualify for tax breaks, specifically deferred gains on capital gains, significantly deferred: 10 years.

Investments like renovating distressed properties or acquiring long-neglected, tax-SOMETHING land.

The provision was originally a bipartisan bill co-introduced by U.S. Senators Tim Scott (S.C.), a Republican, and Democrat Cory Booker (N.J.), along with others, as a way to incentivize folks—from individuals to institutions—with lots of cash to invest in places they’ve likely never been, and almost certainly not considered prime investment opportunities.

Until now, perhaps. Hopefully.

It was buried on page 130 of the controversial Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017, which may have been a good thing because no one on either side of the divisive political aisle paid much attention to it. It was never specifically debated in either the House or Senate but became law when the Act was passed in December 2017.

So, Birmingham, despite our recent economic gains, we’re pretty much an Opportunity Zone.

Of the city’s 70 census tracts, 60 qualify to be designated as Opportunity Zones (which is officially done by state leaders); 77 of our 99 neighborhoods are touched by areas that could be OZs.

Which is why Josh Carpenter’s phone was blowing up when the city’s director of innovation and economic (ahem) opportunity stepped off a plane in Birmingham, returning from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (elev. 19,340 ft) in Tanzania in January. Each of the messages was pretty much the same: So, what are we going to do about Opportunity Zones?

On Thursday morning, city officials shared what Birmingham has done, and is doing, about Opportunity Zones:

Early last year, city officials met with Gov. Kay Ivey and her team, which included Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs Director Kenneth Boswell and asked for 47 of Birmingham’s eligible areas to be declared OZs.

Their pitch included 28 letters of support from community leaders throughout the city—which may be partly why Birmingham received 24 of the state’s 158 OZ designations, more twice as many as the next nearest city.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we’re grateful for what we did get,” Carpenter says. “Now we want to maximize the opportunity to drive investment into the city.”

While OZs are being designated nationwide, Birmingham appears to have launched with a unique strategy designed to not just lure venture capital, institutional dollars and personal wealth into distressed areas but also to educate and empower residents in those areas to help identify projects in their neighborhoods that could spur the proverbial all-of-the-above opportunities all parties desire.

The effort will be guided by two boards: One comprising “people who believe in Birmingham’s potential” (Carpenter’s words) but who may not live in the city; the second, an 11-member “community investment board” including local entrepreneurs, educators, pastors, “a diverse range of people respected within their communities who can help education and awareness.”

The latter group may come from the group of 500 residents who will be accepted to take part in curriculum created to help them become “experts” on the law so they may identify viable opportunities in their neighborhoods and participate in pitching them to potential investors.

“Our big vision is to democratize the information,” Carpenter says. “To take information baked into a convoluted tax bill in D.C. get it into the hands of residents in our neighborhoods. Knowledge, credibility, and cohesiveness across many groups is essential to the success of Opportunity Zones.”

The community, grass-roots component of Birmingham’s strategy is what attracted the likes of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and U.S. Conference of Mayors President Steve Benjamin of Columbia, S.C. were slated to join Mayor Randall Woodfin Thursday at the 12-story Stonewall Building downtown, which sits in an Opportunity Zone and is one the city’s first OZ project.

The striking, but long-dormant owned by Ed Ticheli for a little more than a decade was long the headquarters for American Life Insurance until it acquired Stonewall Insurance and moved the company from Mobile in 1967. More than a year ago, it was announced the 84,000-square-foot building would be converted into 140 units of affordable (but no Section 8) housing—appropriately known as “workforce housing”—with rents starting at $700 per month for a studio and some one-bedroom units.

The City of Birmingham was authorized to spend up to $420,000 to improve sidewalks and public right of ways around the building. Carpenter says the city also helped bring the non-profit Dannon Project into the project.

One of the city’s most vital charities, the Dannon Project tries to transition previously incarcerated individuals and so-called “at-risk” youth into the workforce. Five units in the Stonewall will be designated for Dannon participants.

“Isn’t it ironic,” Carpenter says, “that a place once known as the American Life building, for the first time in forty years, will be filled with life.”

And opportunity, perhaps.

Hopefully.

Article originally published in AL.com on April 12, 2019.