Emerging Lessons about Opportunity Zones
April 24, 2019

Community development professionals are well aware that Opportunity Zones could be the most powerful economic revitalization tool to come along in a generation. What isn’t so well understood is how to attract OZ investors to census tracts that for the most part have experienced long-term disinvestment.

Thomas P. Miller & Associates has spent the past 14 months talking to local government and community officials across the country about how they plan to take advantage of the OZ program. The most common answer is, “We don’t understand what the first step is.” Often the community is waiting for a set of instructions or guidelines to follow that will help them link to OZ funds. Many local leaders do not clearly understand that private investors are the funding source.

Indiana has 156 Opportunity Zones. It is likely that many will see minimal investment at best—certainly not transformative change. Some early lessons from our local and national experiences could help change this. These lessons include:

  • Many zones were not picked well. This is not the fault of the states or communities. The time allotted by the federal government resulted in a rushed selection process. As a result, many zones have had little preparation to ready them for private investment.
  • States have been slow to determine how they can assist local leaders prepare their zones for investment. Indiana is attempting to work with OZ leaders on several fronts, but more focus on this partnership is needed if Indiana is to compete on a national level for OZ investment.
  • Local leadership must prepare their OZs to be “investment ready.” Their activities may range from basic planning to project packaging to creating public-private partnerships. Only a handful of zones are ready to satisfy the demands of the investment community.
  • Not all zones are created equal. “Glamour zones,” typically in growing metropolitan areas, are gaining most of the investor attention. Distressed areas in other urban and rural areas are struggling to be noticed.
  • Many communities need to seek additional capacity to tee up their zones for investment. Organizing struggling real estate, and deal packaging require experience and time.
  • Realizing viable investment outcomes requires creation of partnerships—real estate, financial, institutional. Local and regional leaders need to come together for the heavy lift required for success.
  • Too many communities are focusing on traditional expansion and attraction investments rather than broader transformational strategies involving inclusion, quality of place and improved household opportunities. All of these outcomes are possible with proper preparation.
  • There is confusion regarding how long the OZ incentive is in place. While the deferral on current capital gain liability is time sensitive through December 2026, the future gain tax exemption runs until January 1, 2041
  • Most communities are not familiar with investor terminology. It is important that OZs use terms that investors understand and respond to. The idea is to sell the opportunity a zone offers, not the community. 
  • Rural communities and smaller towns in most cases are the least prepared to take advantage of the OZ program. If they are to realize success, outside technical assistance must be offered to local leaders to plan, package and implement.
  • Like most sophisticated new tools, a user guide is necessary. Thomas P. Miller & Associates can assist with establishing a framework that provides a clear set of steps for local leaders to follow as they work to take advantage of the OZ program.

To learn more about how TPMA can help your community put its best foot forward with Opportunity Zones, contact Mike Higbee at mhigbee@tpma-inc.com.