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An opportunity zone: Tour by White House official spurs talk of future revitalization

SALISBURY — A White House official on Tuesday took the trolley around the city — to the Depot, Kesler Mill, Dixonville and finishing at the Empire Hotel on South Main Street — in order to get an understanding of the city’s and surrounding towns’ “opportunity zones.”

Scott Turner, executive director of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, was joined by elected officials from Salisbury, Spencer and East Spencer as well as with stakeholders from local colleges, economic development groups, business owners and developers. After the tour of the four opportunity zones, Turner took questions from participants.

Turner said the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 lead to the creation of opportunity zones.

“This is not a government program,” Turner said. “This is an initiative. This is a mission to bring true transformation and revitalization to communities.”

The zones give tax benefits to qualified investors when they invest in predetermined low-income areas.

Turner has traveled to 43 cities to learn about opportunity zones and give advice about how to take advantage of them. The biggest obstacles are the lack of awareness about what opportunity zones are and how to capitalize on them, he said.

Wivianny DeHass, of Heart of Salisbury Yoga, said she became knowledgable about opportunity zones from her architect, Pete Bogle. She is transforming 120-A E. Innes St. into studio space for yoga, art and cooking classes along with therapies.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I would have never invested in such a big project,” DeHaas said. “I just want to thank you for bringing this to Salisbury. It was by chance that I found out about this program.”

City Planning Director Hannah Jacobson said a large part of Salisbury, even outside downtown, has opportunity zones.

“While the Empire Hotel is our most ripe opportunity for opportunity zone investment, I’m here as planning director to remind everybody that we actually have 4,000 other acres that are designated as opportunity zones within the city of Salisbury,” Jacobson said.

In those areas, 414 acres is vacant, which represents a significant opportunity for the city that won’t displace anyone, she said.

Turner said investors are also going to look at the transit system along with the proximity to larger cities, including Charlotte. The city should create a prospectus that boasts about the city, he said. A prospectus would help transform an idea into reality, he said.

“There’s a lot of money in capital gains and there are people who have these realized capital gains that really do want to invest in projects in distressed communities,” Turner said. “When you have a prospectus, when you have a strategy, it puts you in the game and that’s where you want to be. You want to go from idea and concept to prospectus, something you can place online.”

Rod Crider, president of the Rowan County Economic Development Commission, said his organization has started creating a prospectus with elected officials throughout the county.

Mayor Al Heggins said they should look beyond elected leaders and to community leaders as well for input.

“For me, it’s not an either-or but a both-and,” Heggins said. “It’s a both and conversation so we’re also listening to some of these community voices that may not be necessarily be the high-profile leader, but we have so many hidden leaders in this community that are doing tremendous work who need to be embraced that need a prospectus for opportunity zones.”

Collaboration is key, Turner said.

Spencer Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Hovis spoke of the willingness to work together.

“We’re here right now trying to play in the same sandbox,” Hovis said.

Turner said economic development has components that come with opportunity zones.

“The spirit of this is economic development but it is also community development,” Turner said. “It’s economic impact, but it’s also social impact.”

Heggins said she is ready to see what’s next, calling on her fellow City Council members to be ready to discuss the issue at the next council meeting.

“We’re all here because we think opportunity zones can really afford us a really unique opportunity here in Salisbury, and we need to not lose that opportunity,” Heggins said. “We’ve got all the pieces. We’ve got all the ingredients. We just need to make the cake.”

Turner said the community has unity and excitement, which will spur activity.

“We all see what the reality is,” he said. “We see the pain, but we also see the potential and the promise.”

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