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Federal Officials Visit Bellefonte to Discuss Opportunity Zone, Economic Development

by on July 08, 2019 6:30 PM

The people and potential of Bellefonte are promising signs for local revitalization efforts, according to Scott Turner, executive director of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council.

Turner joined U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, and other federal agency and local government representatives in Bellefonte on Monday to talk about the borough's "opportunity zone," a designation created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 to spur investment and development in lower income "distressed" communities. Centre County also has certified opportunity zones in downtown State College, Philipsburg and Rush Township.

The initiative allows investors to earn tax incentives by investing unrealized capital gains into opportunity funds for qualifying projects within opportunity zones. The longer they invest, the greater the incentives.

"These opportunity zones … are really about facilitating investments in communities that sometimes are not the ones that tend to get the attention of investors," Thompson said. 

After a walking tour downtown and along the waterfront, officials met with local community and business leaders at Sundman Hall in the American Philatelic Society at the Match Factory complex for a roundtable discussion. Thompson said Bellefonte has "some very exciting opportunities," such as the Academy and Armory properties, vacancies in some of the historic buildings downtown, and the Waterfront District, where mixed-use development is on the verge of moving forward.

Turner was appointed by President Donald Trump in April to head the Opportunity and Revitalization Council, which brings together 13 federal agencies and three regional partners with the goal, in part, of targeting and coordinating competitive grants that could be prioritized for use within opportunity zones.

He has been on a listening tour of opportunity zones across the country to learn about potential projects and offer advice to local communities. He said of the 15 or so communities he has visited so far, Bellefonte has been among his favorites.

"[HUD Secretary] Ben Carson always talks about human capital. The most valuable capital we have is human capital and the people here in Bellefonte have been tremendous," Turner said. "People know each other by their first names... To see the opportunity here, the resources and promise and potential has been very encouraging to me."

Much of the discussion focused on plans for the Waterfront, where developers Tom Songer and Mark Morath announced last year a sales agreement with the borough to purchase the 3.75 acre parcel where the Bush House formerly stood. There they plan to develop a boutique hotel with a farm-to-table restaurant and bar, a parking structure with retail space on its first floor, and a building with first-floor commercial and office space and four floors of residential condominiums. The project will be designed to complement the historic character of Bellefonte, Songer said.

"We believe it will be the beginning of a total renaissance of Bellefonte," he added.

Songer said they are in talks with a flagship brand for the hotel and are hopeful that construction can begin next spring. With three different parts to the development, the project is being set up to potentially take advantage of the opportunity zone, with the possibility of attracting different investors to the project.

"I like the idea of the new retail because those are businesses that could benefit from an opportunity zone as well, in particular from local investors and entrepreneurs that are right here," Turner said. "Then the housing on top of that, you can ... work and have activity where you live."

Songer has been looking at doing the project for more than 10 years, and after the borough completed the work to raise the property out of the 100-year flood plain, creating the waterfront walk, it became more feasible. Most challenging now are rising construction and hotel costs and funding the $8 or $9 million parking structure.

Curt Coccodrilli, state director for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, said the project may have opportunities for the department's business and industry guaranteed loan program and community facilities grant program.

"We’d love to hear more about the project," Coccodrilli said. "I think it’s phenomenal."

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said that while "big industry is gone... we thrive on our economic development in smaller packages." Bellefonte has "a lot going on," he said but doesn't have a lot of empty parcels to develop, so projects like the Waterfront are important. Benninghoff asked how community leaders can put opportunity zone plans into action in the next few months and if there is "process that makes this a little easier for us to follow up later."

Turner said that every community is different, citing varied opportunity zone projects that have begun in Atlanta, Colorado Springs, Cleveland and New York, all of which had different kinds of goals and investors. He encouraged working with the agency staffs "on the ground" in the state and convening local stakeholders on how best to tap state and federal resources.

"Not only is this a great vision and idea, but this has a lot of promise and can affect this community for a long time," Turner said.

Mike Fisher, assistant executive director of the 11-county SEDA-COG, said his organization can serve as a facilitator, as it already does, for things like working with permitting agencies and SBA lending.

Thompson also said community and business leaders should work with his local office and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's Bellefonte office.

"We kind of serve as air-traffic controllers," Thompson said. "We’re not going to fly the plane but we’re going to make sure you know where to connect."

Turner, meanwhile, said that ultimately the goal for the opportunity zones and the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council is to create long-term, sustainable change.

"The council was created to bring a public-private partnership inside these opportunity zone projects to bring about transformation," he said.

"This really is a mission because of the long-term sustainability and vision of generational impact that the opportunity zones and the council bring... There’s a two-pronged approach: You have economic development, but you also have community development. You have the buildings, the brick and the mortar, the housing and businesses being built, but you also have the social impact piece. In the end our goal and our vision is that the people in these opportunity zones can remain and thrive inside the community that’s being revitalized."



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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