Leveraging the opportunity of #OpportunityZones

recently headed up the coast to Los Angeles to spend the day with mayors from across the country, real estate developers, bankers and community leaders. Accelerator for America had brought this diverse group of people together to discuss something at the top of everyone’s minds. The topic? Opportunity Zones.

Opportunity Zones were created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. They create a tax incentive to push more dollars into the communities that need investment most. The basics of how it works: someone has capital gains, by reinvesting those gains into a pre-approved Opportunity Fund that someone will receive a temporary tax deferral and other tax benefits. These Opportunity Funds are required to invest 90% of its money in pre-approved census tracts — most of which are in rural or lower-income urban communities.

Proponents have estimated that this could be a $6 trillion dollar opportunity for cities to leverage. As a result, communities could see real estate investors rehab old buildings to create tech incubators and more VC money for local startups. Those more hesitant to jump on-board warn that this recent policy isn’t much different than previous attempts to encourage economic development with tax incentives which failed to generate substantial economic growth.

If there’s one thing our diverse group agreed on, it’s this…

Cities need to act now and get positioned to leverage the $6T investment Opportunity Zones promise.

Otherwise it’s uncertain that these investments can be channeled towards the projects communities need the most, as those project often have uncertain returns associated with them.

Mayor Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles), Mayor David Holt (Oklahoma City), Mayor Greg Fischer (Lousiville) getting ready to share their thoughts on Mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttegig’s draft investment prospectus. Love when cities learn from other cities!

Some initial thoughts about how cities can start acting now to take advantage of Opportunity Zones are below.

  • Early bird gets the worm. 8,700 specific census tracts have been defined as Opportunity Zones across the country, but implementation isn’t certain (the Treasury Department is still figuring out lots of deets!) But even with lots of uncertainty, 20+ funds have already launched, and there are more in the works. Cities that prepare now will be best positioned to receive funds, and do so in a way that is focused on their priorities, rather than the investors.

 

  • Match the hatch. Money has never been the (only) problem when it comes to investing in communities. Private sector dollars flow to projects that are well designed, quantified, and valued — in terms that investors understand! This means that to get money in the door for a specific project, public entities have to first identify projects that either create revenue or generate savings that can be attributed to a specific entity. Not to mention define capital stacks, ratios, and IRR. Just like you can’t turn a blueprint directly into a mortgage document, you can’t turn an economic development strategy directly into a set of bankable projects….but you may be able to turn it into an investment prospectus. Accelerator for America, in collaboration with smarties like Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak,* are helping cities do just that. By defining, in an investor friendly way, an existing set of goals and a pipeline of projects that could be possible if there were private dollars available, cities can help ensure that investments are made in ways that actually make their most vulnerable neighborhoods safer, smarter or more sustainable. (h/t to my dad for raising me on catchy fly-fishing lingo that is also very useful for business!)

 

  • Define success first. Some have raised concerns that this could be just another way for money to flow towards investments with stable financial returns — like franchise fast food restaurants (see EB5) — instead of local grocery stores or cool projects like school LED light replacement that doubles as STEM education that could truly help transform distressed neighborhoods. Whether doing an all out investment prospectus or just getting organized, cities should start thinking now about what success looks like and putting mechanisms in place to track whether Opportunity Zone investments are helping. There are plenty of tools that cities can use to track how a neighborhood’s jobless rates, per capita income, or crime rates are changing over time. (Checkout how High Point, NC is tracking neighborhood scale improvements as they work to alleviate blighted properties or how Nashua, NH is tracking how livability factors like obesity rates and access to healthy foods are impacted by community investments.)

 

  • People should drive projects. Successful Opportunity Zone investments will align with city priorities and deliver on neighborhood needs. $6T is an excellent carrot and cities should use it as another reason to support meaningful engagement with their residents. Ideally, all Opportunity Zone projects stem from asking residents: what are the most significant problems in your day to day life? what can make your community better? There are tons of tools cities can use to make that process easier. (Checkout how Kansas City used a citizen survey to pass a $800M bond. Or how Purceville, VA used a polling platform to prioritize block-by-block investments.) These tools, used at scale, can be a great way to not only inform an investment prospectus but create a pipeline of projects that drive value to residents.

Finally, one caution from this eternal optimist…

The rise of the rest of the unicorns?

There’s a lot of discussion about how Opportunity Zones could be the thing that finally moves venture capital money from its current comfortable home on the coasts. Don’t get me wrong, as a co-founder of a startup based in San Diego, I strongly believe that good ideas are everywhere and VC money should be more evenly spread across the country. But it’s important to remember that most startups that get venture funding have high margins(some operate at 90% margin!). To get there it often means companies have low capex (meaning they don’t build many things) and low opex (meaning they don’t hire many people).

Venture-backed startups are not the most likely to create jobs for low-income residents in vulnerable communities, and they are not the most likely to stay in those communities after they get quickly acquired to payback their investors.

The biggest job creators in communities tend to be existing business in those communities. When it comes to Opportunity Zones, those are the types of corporate investments that should be prioritized.

To realize the value that many believe Opportunity Zones can create, investments need to go into the businesses, real estate projects, and community services that drive value for the most vulnerable residents. Investment dollars will find projects that make financial sense, its on city leaders to make sure those projects make community sense too.

Want to read more on Opportunity Zones? Checkout these recent pieces in Route FiftyWall Street Journal and all this great stuff written by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak.

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*Shortly after I drafted this piece, Jeremy Nowak passed away. His absence is felt by our entire community. My heart goes out to his family, friends and colleagues. Read more about his incredible life of service here.

Water You Waiting For Finalists & Voting

The Atlas, like ELGL, is passionate about the free and open exchange of ideas where local governments can learn from one another to be most successful. When local leaders share their success stories, everybody wins. This is especially true on expensive and complex public works projects. We are so glad to be partnering with ELGL to collect and share details about the best water projects in the nation.

 

Below are the 18 amazing water projects nominated and selected for you to learn more about, now you get to pick your favorite! The winner will be selected by popular vote, so get the word out! You can vote for your favorite project here: http://elgl.org/2018/04/24/water-you-waiting-for-voting/.

 

Voting for the Top 4 projects is now open through midnight Wednesday, May 2nd. Here’s what’s on the line:

  • Honors at the ELGL18conference in Golden, CO May 18th.
  • Profiles (via interviews, pictures, articles) by ELGL and The Atlas.
  • A year’s free membership to ELGL, a trophy, and a box of goodies.

 

Terminal Island Advanced Water Purification

Los Angeles, CA

At a Glance: Construction of an Advanced Water Treatment Facility (AWPF) at Terminal Island Water Reclamation Plant (TIWRP) to provide safe recycled water for potable reuse for the surrounding area. The planning of this project started in 1985 and the construction was broken in two phases.

 

Upcycled Trash Booms for Trash Cleanup in the Tijuana River Valley 

San Diego, CA

At a Glance: A binational project that repurposes trash collected in Mexico to create booms that capture trash flowing into San Diego County.

 

 

Water Conservation Home Makeover at Chollas Creek 

San Diego County, CA

At a Glance: This pilot project provides water conservation ‘home makeovers’ to 50 low income homes in Encanto, a disadvantaged community in San Diego County. The project includes retrofits and personalized landscaping, as well as outreach including quarterly reports on water savings metrics and school programming.

 

 

Mission Avenue Complete Street 

Oceanside, CA

At a Glance: Mission Avenue Streetscape is a “complete green street” in Oceanside, San Diego County. This project implemented a ‘road diet’ to support local businesses, make the area more enjoyable, and include storm water BMPs.

 

 

Closed Loop Water Infrastructure at the San Diego International Airport 

San Diego, CA

At a Glance: The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, the agency that manages the day-to-day operations of San Diego International Airport (SAN), is pursuing an integrated approach to managing water quality, water use, and flood resilience.

 

 

Canyonside Recycled Water Pump Station Emergency Repairs for Flood Damage 

San Diego, CA

At a Glance: City crews worked long hours to install temporary pumps and generators; the pumps were operated manually 24 hr/day, shifts scheduled around the clock to keep pumps running and site secure. The City returned the Pump Station to full operating condition and kept costs to a minimum with the use of in-house staff.

 

 

Lloyd Estates Drainage Improvements 

Oakland Park, FL

At a Glance: Retrofits to existing stormwater control structures and have constructed new exfiltration trenches, catch basins & manholes, and roadside swales to deal with repeat flood losses. Retrofits seamlessly integrate both green (grass swales) and grey (pumps, trenches) components.

 

 

Citizen Science for King Tide Flooding 

Broward County, FL

At a Glance: Low-lying coastal areas of Broward County can be impacted by flooding from high tide events. To help document locations and severity of flooding, Broward County launched a citizen science effort that encouraged citizens to submit geotagged pictures of flooding via their smartphones.

 

 

Using Data & Creativity to Reduce Flooding

Orlando, FL

At a Glance: The City of Orlando plans to upgrade Lake Monitoring stations as part of this project. These stations will communicate rain intensity.duration data to the cloud via wireless connectivity. This information will be used to create an Orlando Unit Hydrograph curve to model storm events within the Orlando watershed.

 

 

Justifying Green Stormwater Design for St Paul 

St. Paul, MN

At a Glance: City of St. Paul had the opportunity to redevelop a vacant 135-acre Ford Motor Co. campus that included a riverfront area abutting Hidden Falls Regional Park. However the current site lacked stormwater management transportation options to support its use by the community. Because of its prominent location, Mayor Chris Coleman urged the city staff to study and replicate the best practices for a “21st century community.” Development plans have been informed by community input and enhanced by triple bottom line cost analysis.

 

 

Enhanced Flood Risk Reduction Through Bistate, Multiagency Partnership 

Kansas City, MO

At a Glance: Kansas City, Missouri, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collaborate on complex flooding problem-solving and managed funding, administration and real estate in order to reduce heavy rain stormwater impact on local businesses and residences.

 

 

Southwest Resiliency Park to Mitigate Stormwater Flooding 

Hoboken, NJ

At a Glance: After experiencing significant flooding during Hurricane Sandy, the Southwest Resiliency Park is the first in a series of investments the city is making to increase green space and reduce flooding vulnerability for communities.

 

 

Using Green Infrastructure To Green Camden City and Reduce Combined Sewage Flooding and Overflows 

Camden, NJ

At a Glance: Constructed 4 riverfront parks and 60 rain gardens in Camden City to provide green amenities for the residents, reduce combined sewage flooding and overflows, and also create green maintenance jobs.

 

 

Building a Smarter Sewer System to Reduce Overflows in Greater Cincinnati 

Cincinnati, OH

At a Glance: To keep sewage mixed with stormwater out of waterways during rain events, Metropolitan Sewer District built a smarter sewer system that costs less than any other solution. Using sensors and computers, we can now monitor and redirect stormwater flows from full interceptor sewers to areas with available capacity.

 

 

Upgraded wastewater treatment to a level acceptable to reuse on crops

Hermiston, OR

At a Glance: The city needed to upgrade its effluent to discharge into the Umatilla River. After extensive study and research, the best solution was determined to be treating the water to the level that it could be applied to regular crops. So now the city discharges to the West Extension Irrigation District canal during irrigation season.

 

 

Reducing CSOs with CMAC Technology 

Philadelphia, PA

At a Glance: Philadelphia Water Department installed continuous monitoring and adaptive control (CMAC) technology in stormwater retention basin to control runoff in real-time and reduce flooding.

 

 

Hacking the Storm: Crowdsourcing, Civic Hacking, and Innovation in Harvey’s Wake

Houston, TX

At a Glance: In the midst of Hurricane Harvey, City of Houston officials and the local tech community responded rapidly using data, tech, and crowdsourcing to hack disaster response efforts. These new approaches leverage the power of the crowd to revolutionize disaster rescue, relief, and recovery operations.

 

 

Lower Footprint Biofiltration to Increase Efficiency in Right of Way Stormwater Capture

Houston, TX

At a Glance: Part of a broader redevelopment effort, Bagby Street – a ten-block corridor in a dense, urban neighborhood of Houston – was redesigned to improve mobility for vehicles and pedestrians, and add aesthetic appeal to the road. Improvements led to Bagby Street being named one of Texas’ first certified Greenroads.

 

Retain Your Rain 

Norfolk, VA

At a Glance: Retain your rain seeks to engage residents in a city-wide systemic approach to stormwater management by encouraging the use of small-scale green infrastructure on their properties. This reduces the amount of water that goes into the stormwater system which can cause floods in our streets and neighborhoods.

 

Cities Can’t Prejudge Winner in Green v. Grey Infrastructure Battle

When one of our co-founders was in college, she noticed there was always a disconnect between the “civil” and “environmental” parts of her Civil/Environmental Engineering degree. Sometimes it even seemed like the nerds and the hippies were locked in a quiet (but epic!) struggle over the future of the world’s cities. These tensions were an understandable reflection of a persistent trend in the infrastructure community that continues to pit grey (traditional) and green (nature-based) approaches against each other in a quasi-moral battle.

One of the ironies of the green versus grey infrastructure battle is that they are not mutually exclusive approaches; many times the best design solution is a combination of grey and green infrastructure working together. Grey and green infrastructure are on the same team, and that team’s goal is to take action on any number of difficult problems coastal cities are grappling with: hurricane risk, saltwater intrusion, coastal erosion, tidal flooding, sea level rise. Arguing about green versus grey infrastructure makes taking action on these problems harder than it already is.

In the spirit of taking action and focusing on outcomes, here are a few interesting examples of successfully built green and grey coastal protection projects and the innovations that make them stand out.

Green (Nature-Based) Coastal Protection Projects

It is paramount for all nature-based coastal protection projects to plan for, and execute long-term evaluation and monitoring to determine the project’s performance, such as resulting reduction of wave height. This is essential to ensure that more traditional engineers accept these softer solutions as viable. The support of more traditional engineers is key to the replicability and scalability of these nature-based solutions.

Louisiana’s Coastal Restoration: As a part of a comprehensive plan to reduce coastal risks, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has undertaken nearly 150 restoration and protection projects, both green and grey. Of interest is the associated applied research to measure and model the performance of nature-based infrastructure projects on Louisiana’s coast.

Staten Island Bluebelt (New York): A successful watershed-level approach to green infrastructure to address intertwined problems of coastal risks, flooding and poor water quality. The Bluebelt enjoys a high level of community support because of continued engagement, increases in home prices and cost savings.

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge Restoration (Dover, DE): Integration of storm surge risk reduction and endangered species habitat restoration after Hurricane Sandy. Particularly interesting is this write-up from the US Fish and Wildlife Service that includes process updates from December 2012 through December 2016 (when construction finished) that provide great insight into how the project actually moved forward.

Grey (Structural) Coastal Protection Projects

There are cases when no amount of green infrastructure will solve extreme, chronic coastal flooding. In those cases, it’s a good thing traditional grey solutions are becoming smarter, more flexible, and more sustainable. We should applaud that progress and seek to replicate it, when appropriate. These are some examples we’ve been thinking about recently:

San Andrés Breakwater (Port of Málaga, Spain): An innovation in breakwater design and materials saved significant time and money in this project. The RFP was written in a way that enabled the innovation in design and materials, which is why the project won Spain’s National Innovation Award for Public Procurement of Innovative Solutions in 2011.

MOSE project (Venice, Italy): Managers of this project can use real time data to open and close a series of tide gates based on changing tide conditions, making its operation more flexible than a typical tide gate project. Researchers have been simulating the flexible operation of these tide gates since 2011 to prepare for eventual construction completion and operation, expected in 2018.

West Riser Tide Gate (Meadowlands, NJ): The tide gates include a series of solar-powered sensors that allow managers to monitor performance during storms. The data is posted in real-time so citizens can receive text and email alerts when there’s immediate flood danger. This connectivity is reflective of a broader trend towards open, and usable, data in infrastructure and other essential city services.

The coastal cities that are taking action are generally doing so because they are experiencing real, tangible impacts of coastal flooding today, and they are aware that those problems are going to get worse in the future. In these cities, floods are costing businesses now; they’re increasing insurance prices now; they’re affecting home prices now. These cities don’t have the luxury of discriminating between green and grey solutions. They need the solution that is best for their community. Rightfully so, these cities are focused on outcomes: How many homes will this solution protect, and from what size storms? How much will it cost?

The cities and states that pursued the projects listed above have taken tangible action to mitigate coastal risks. Why have they moved forward, when so many others are failing? Capturing their success factors is important in helping other cities replicate these coastal innovations, both green and grey, in their own communities. Here are some of the factors that may have allowed these projects to move forward:

  1. Solved an urgent problem (while keeping an eye on the future)
  2. Prescribed desired outcomes, not specific technology intervention(s)
  3. Empowered a project champion
  4. Engaged broadly with their communities, with both the public and private sectors

 

In a lot of cases, the factors listed above are proxies for political will. For example, when a project solves a pressing problem that matters to citizens, elected officials are likely to enthusiastically support the project. And when there’s political will, projects tend to move forward when they otherwise would not.

We’ve listed a few success factors, but this is certainly not a comprehensive list. There are  many important factors that move coastal protection projects forward from initial design to construction and operation. Are there any coastal protection projects you’ve come across recently that inspire you?

This content was originally posted on Meeting of the Minds: http://meetingoftheminds.org/blog.