By Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA
Before I began at Spotlight PA in July, a new federal tax incentive program was already being hotly debated. Created as part of the 2017 Republican tax overhaul, it offers wealthy investors generous tax breaks if they put capital gains — profits from selling stock or other investments – into areas in need of redevelopment. Those areas were deemed "opportunity zones."
Supporters said it would be a boon for the richest and the poorest; skeptics said it wouldn’t move the needle in the places that needed help the most. Curious to find out how things were going in Pennsylvania, I asked my editor: How many of these places that have opportunity zones should I reach out to? I thought the answer would be 10, or maybe 15. He said, "Why not call them all?"
That's the power of a newsroom like Spotlight PA and investigative reporters with the time, resources and mandate to dig deeper and get to the bottom of a story rather than just parrot the "he said, she said."
And so began a complicated, color-coded spreadsheet and a crash course in state geography (and pronunciation of community names). I eventually spoke with more than 30 economic development officials and local leaders across the state, as well as investors, developers, local residents and business owners in places chosen as opportunity zones.
Their responses were as diverse as the state, but there was a common thread: After the initial hype around the program, many local officials were struggling to see how it would help their communities.
“To think we’re going to get a great deal of investment – or any at all – is a challenge,” said Linda Nitch, who is overseeing efforts in New Castle to market its four opportunity zones to investors. “I don’t see this as a big shot in the arm."
I then went a step further, beyond studies and experts, to travel the state and talk to people who love their towns and desperately want them to prosper.
“I do think about the fact that more and more businesses are moving out and none are coming back in,” said Jeffrey Miller, who co-owns a flower shop in New Castle. Despite the challenges, he said, people stay “because they have history here and they do love the city and would like to see it come back.”
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