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Opportunity Zone Forum Recap: An Important Conversation

By Yzabelle Dela Cruz

On Friday, February 1st, Sacramento Councilmember Eric Guerra (District 6) kicked off the Capital Region Opportunity Zone Forum, which Valley Vision created in partnership with the Councilmember’s office, the City of SacramentoFederal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and Power Inn Alliance.

Opportunity Forum attendees
Over 200 people attended the February 1st Forum at Depot Park in Sacramento.

The 200+ participants were next greeted by Meaghan Stiles and Matthew Ceccato of Congressional Reps. Matsui’s and Bera’s offices, respectively, highlighting the degree of interest at both local and federal levels in this still-emerging initiative to increase the capital available to the nation’s most underserved communities. Special guest speakers included Jimmy Stracner, Regional Administrator for Region IX of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Chris Dombrowski, Chief Deputy Director for the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz).

Because Opportunity Zones (OZs) are so new, with guidelines still being defined federally, the Forum opened with a primer – what OZs are, why they were created, and how they work – from Scott Syphax (Syphax Strategic Solutions) and Kevin Wilson (Novogradac and Company), both of whom are working extensively in OZs at the national level.

Following that introduction and level-setting, the Forum shifted to focus on three key “implementation issues” for OZs: first, what kind of investments seem best-suited to OZs; next, the importance of understanding community perspective and potential impacts on OZ residents; and third, local and state government actions that could improve the appeal of OZ investing in our region.

In the lead-off “Model Projects” discussion, Liz McFarland of Greater Sacramento demonstrated the beta version of an online mapping tool that will be available on their website by the end of this month. As well, Denton Kelley of LDK Ventures and Tyrone Roderick Williams of SHRA each summarized their current views of the most effective uses of OZ investments – which is unlikely to be in affordable housing, as both speakers agreed, despite the statewide housing crisis.

In the “Community Impacts” discussion, Ricardo Flores of LISC and Ky-Nam Miller, from San Diego and Oakland respectively, joined Clarence Williams of Sacramento-based California Capital. The three highlighted the imperatives of inclusive, community-based economic strategies, specifically in order to avoid possible gentrification of OZ neighborhoods in ways that could displace the very residents that OZs are trying to aid.

Finally, the Forum turned to the important roles of both state and local governments in supporting communities and creating an environment in which OZ investing occurs successfully – and consistent with State and local goals. Chris Dombrowski, of GO-Biz, emphasized the priority that the Newsom administration has placed on OZs early in the Governor’s term. A discussion panel of Fred Silva (California Forward), Robert Burris (Solano EDC and CALED), and Michael Jasso (City of Sacramento) then identified a host of ideas, like increasing local capacity through state assistance, developing a pipeline of projects that align with community objectives, and layering in other economic development tools such as Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs).

Forum materials and additional resources can be found on the Valley Vision website.

Without a doubt, Opportunity Zones can raise topics and concerns that can be hard to discuss – such as the fact that the federal government created no “guardrails” or requirements for transparency in OZ investing; concerns about exclusion and disempowerment of the very people that OZs were created to help raise up; and the potential for displacement of people already living in OZs as OZ investment flows in.

But also without a doubt, Opportunity Zones have the potential to shape the characters of our communities for decades to come, and for that reason it’s all the more important to have these hard conversations early, often, and inclusively. Valley Vision and its partners are committed to working hard on OZs, particularly to bring the different stakeholders in OZs together on these tough issues.

If you missed the Forum on Friday, you can catch the livestream feed on Councilmember Guerra’s Facebook page. You can also review the Forum Powerpoint presentation, the real-time audience polling results, and many more relevant resources on Valley Vision’s Opportunity Zones resource page. To keep up with Valley Vision’s work to advance livability in the Sacramento region, subscribe to our Vantage Point email newsletter!

Yzabelle Dela Cruz is a Valley Vision Project Associate contributing to the Innovation & Infrastructure and Leadership & Civic Engagement impact areas.

Valley Vision’s Chloe Pan and Meg Arnold also contributed to the writing of this blog.