When opportunity knocks, you have to let it in.
The Pittsburgh region has dozens of Opportunity Zones — economically struggling communities that have been left behind as others have prospered — but the federal Opportunity Zone program has yet to really take off here.
Now, these communities are going to see $20 million in investment, from a partnership between the Richard King Mellon Foundation, whose $4 million award propelled $16 million from Boston-based Arctaris Impact Investors, which has 11 years of experience making transformative investments in low-income communities.
R.K. Mellon Foundation Director Sam Reiman says the intent of the Opportunity Zone program is to create tax incentives for private investment in distressed communities.
“We believe Allegheny and Westmoreland counties should realize the benefits of this proven program, and our board was willing to make the first investment to lead the way,” he says.
There are 72 Qualified Opportunity Zones in low-income census tracts in western Pennsylvania, 68 in Allegheny County (such as Homewood and Hazelwood) and four in Westmoreland County (such as New Kensington and Jeannette).
The designations were meant to be made by mayors and state governors, Reiman says. In some cases, the area would qualify as a distressed community under the traditional federal poverty guidelines, and sometimes cities select communities “that maybe were just about to start to see a massive wave of investment, but they thought it would add some fuel to the fire,” he explains.
The program will invest in projects that support economic development, workforce training, affordable housing and sustainable job creation.
“We’re not going to be hand-selecting any of these projects,” says Reiman. “We’re really not the experts when it comes to figuring out what the best for-profit company is to invest in or the best real estate project. So that’s where the expertise of Arctaris comes in — for us to lean on them to help make those decisions, of course, with feedback from us, and the other community partners that are involved in this.”
Arctaris plans to invest in 10 cities, counties or states in the next year. They’ve already partnered on a Downtown revitalization project in Erie with Erie Insurance and the Erie Community Foundation.
The goal isn’t to make every community a high-flying, high-tech hub like Hazelwood is (slowly) becoming. But small projects can be transformative — such as getting rural (and some neglected urban) communities connected to broadband, to bridge the digital divide that slices through America.
“It could be a small-to-midsize manufacturing company … in Westmoreland County,” says Reiman. “They might need new equipment in order for them to be able to participate in this new wave of advanced additive manufacturing.”
Arctaris plans to create a community advisory board in Pittsburgh and hire a full-time local employee to help with implementation.
“Arctaris is committed to Pittsburgh’s future,” says Jonathan Tower, founder and managing partner of Arctaris. “We are excited to partner with the Richard King Mellon Foundation to help bolster the economy for Southwestern Pennsylvania residents.”