Economic Development

Opportunity in Warren Rolls Out at Chamber Breakfast

WARREN, Ohio — Rules for the federal government’s new Opportunity Zones program are expected to be rolled out this summer, which could greatly aid economic development here and across the Mahoning Valley.

That was the consensus expressed Friday at the Good Morning, Warren! breakfast sponsored by the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber at DiVieste’s Banquet Centre.

Speakers included Mayor Doug Franklin, Lauren Johnson, 422 and business development manager for the chamber, Rick Stockburger, vice president and chief operating officer at the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center Warren Schools Superintendent Steve Chiaro and Kathy Cook, CEO of St. Joseph Warren Hospital.

The Opportunity Zone program, created in 2017 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, is designed to incentivize equity investments in qualifying projects within the specified zones by deferring taxes on capital gains. A total of 15 census tracts in the Mahoning Valley were approved for the Opportunity Zone program, including four in the city of Warren.

The program is “a fantastic tool that we can put in our tool kit” to let investors take advantage of the capital gains benefit and help census tracts that are “starving for investment,” Franklin said.

“It’s a great fit for where we are at as a city.”

Qualifying investments could include real estate investments, stock in new or existing companies, or business assets.

“The rules are not yet finalized so we hope that takes place this summer,” the chamber’s Johnson said. That has given local entities like the chamber time “to get everything in place so that we have a winning strategy.” Once the rules are established, she anticipates activity will pick up “right out of the gate.”

TBEIC, which is located in Warren’s downtown zone, is looking to assist companies in the energy sector grow and help new businesses open in Opportunity Zones. 

“There’s not a lot of experts out there in Opportunity Zones,” Stockburger remarked.  

Stockburger announced that TBEIC is partnering with the Economic Innovation Group after reaching out to John Lettieri, president and CEO of Washington-based EIG. “John and his team wrote the words that got through to Congress that created Opportunity Zones,” he said.

The energy incubator recently partnered with New Energy Nexus, which is consulting with several states on how to set up opportunity zone programs, he said. On June 27, TBEIC will host New Energy Nexus’ Jon Bonanno and potentially Lettieri for a local program aimed at connecting potential investors with energy projects.

“If you have a project and you’re looking to do something along those lines in the energy sector, come to the program,” Stockburger said.

The chamber is working with its local partners – which include Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Western Reserve Port Authority and Mahoning Valley Economic Development Corp. – to create a marketing plan and a prospectus that include eligible projects and sites throughout the Opportunity Zone Census tracts, Johnson said. Additionally, it would assemble a customized package of resources to support any projects.

“There are a lot of great opportunities for investors,” Johnson said. “Certainly, we’re seeing a lot of interest and once those regulations are finalized, we’ll have a system in place for investors to know where to go and what they need, and we’ll be able to move some projects forward.” 

The four Warren Opportunity Zones are in key areas of the city that are ripe for investment, Franklin said. Those are the Dana Street/Golden Triangle area, the Northwest quadrant, Downtown/Courthouse Square and BDM, or the former RG Steel property. 

Warren Mayor Doug Franklin addressed development projects and activity downtown.

During his portion of the program, Franklin cited progress on multiple fronts. In the downtown, three new food and beverage establishments are opening in the coming weeks, joining existing venues such as Nova Coffee Co., Speakeasy Lounge and Modern Methods Brewing Co.

With the Warren Community Amphitheatre, Packard Music Hall and the under-renovation Robins Theatre set to reopen next January, the city “is becoming a destination for good food, drinks and entertainment,” the mayor said. 

Other downtown area activity includes the recent expansion of Thom Duma Fine Jewelers, the Trumbull County Historical Society’s upcoming renovation of the former public defender’s office, the $4 million restoration project at the Packard Apartments, and development of market-rate housing by Mark Marvin’s Downtown Development Group.

“His dedication to Warren is an inspiration to us all,” Franklin said.    

Additionally, the city has taken down 24 blighted commercial properties in recent years, with another six slated for demolition this year. 

And city officials are excited about a proposal for redevelopment of the peninsula tying into the overall development of the Mahoning River as a resource for commercial activity and recreation, something Franklin said could be accomplished with the creation of a river district centered on the peninsula.

Related to that is a plan to expand pedestrian infrastructure around the Mahoning River, to better connect it with existing and new residential and commercial areas downtown, he said. The city is in discussions with the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental group, to assist with evaluating the river corridor, make recommendations for improving eamenities and infrastructure and identify funding opportunities for projects.

Mixed-use zoning downtown and in the river district will figure prominently in the city’s new strategic plan, which will be introduced publicly in the coming weeks, the mayor said. The intent is to encourage more pedestrian activity, driving foot traffic to local shops and restaurants and attracting a younger demographic. A “complete streets” component will tie many of these initiatives together, he said.    

City leaders are working with TBEIC and FirstEnergy to install the first public charging station downtown for electric vehicles as well, he said.

“The city must embrace technology and use it as a positive force that allows businesses to compete in the global economy,” he said. 

Pictured above: Lauren Johnson, 422 and business development manager for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, discussed possibilities for equity investments in Opportunity Zones through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.