August 6, 2019
Opportunity Zone development is starting to pop up all over the place. Atlanta has 26 designated Opportunity Zones (there are 260 total in the state), and the organization Invest Atlanta is working with real estate owners, developers and businesses to bring new investment to these locations. Coldwell Banker Commercial talked with Edward Smith, Ph.D., Invest Atlanta’s Opportunity Zones Manager, about how the organization is ensuring the Opportunity Zone program is an instrument of economic development and social change.
CBC: What is your background? Why did you join Invest Atlanta?
Edward Smith: I am from metro Atlanta and am the former Deputy Director of Development and Planning at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp., where I worked on the first EB-5 foreign investment deal in New York City. That’s where I began to think about public-private partnerships; how we can utilize public resources to leverage private capital. When I enrolled for my Ph.D. at University of Delaware, my dissertation was on the EB-5 program. I started a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., focused on EB-5 research and consulting. My wife and I eventually ended up back in Atlanta, and it was there, in February of 2018, that the new Federal Opportunity Zone incentive program came on my radar. I read about it, and saw how it could be used to promote job creation and economic growth in urban communities. From there, I began offering Opportunity Zone assistance in my suite of services. Not long after, I learned that Invest Atlanta wanted someone to manage an Opportunity Zones program for the City of Atlanta. The job posting was exactly what I was already doing, so I applied and was hired. I’ve been on the job for about three months now.
CBC: How does Invest Atlanta approach Opportunity Zones differently from other communities?
ES: There is a concerted effort to leverage this tool with other tools and incentives to promote positive economic outcomes. In other communities, you might need to contact someone at the planning department, find someone to talk to about additional tax incentives, someone at city council, and so on. At Invest Atlanta, I am a single point of contact to expedite the process. Instead of a developer or investor having to go to this group or that group for help, I serve as their liaison. I quarterback the conversation, which streamlines the process for all involved. There are other communities with a single point of contact, but not many.
CBC: What is your strategy?
ES: Invest Atlanta has a four-point strategy. Not in order of importance, necessarily, but the first point is identifying and developing relationships with project sponsors, whether those sponsors are in real estate or businesses seeking to attract investments. Second, is cultivating relationships with the Opportunity Zone community. This involves traveling around the country to Opportunity Zone conferences and workshops, and developing relationships with the funder community. These events are great places for project sponsors and funds to interact with one another.
Third, is community engagement, which is two-fold. First, we serve as a central information hub on anything Opportunity Zones in Atlanta. Our main tool is our web portal (www.atlopportunityzones.com) to gather and disseminate information. Second, we offer workshops and participate in speaking engagements in partnership with HUD, the Urban League, the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center, and other community stakeholders. It’s a way for us to talk not only about Opportunity Zone incentives, but also other tools available for economic development. The goal here is to introduce the Opportunity Zone incentive and other available tools.
CBC: What is the fourth point of your Opportunity Zone strategy?
ES: Data and reporting. This is important because we need to know how many jobs are being created, how much development is going on, areas for improvement and stories to share. The important thing about this program is results. There are many frameworks being thrown around right now. The Urban Institute has developed one we’ll be piloting. Depending on how everything goes, we’re hoping to have a first report by the end of 2019. The goal is to release reports twice a year.
CBC: What is the importance of the Opportunity Zone for Atlanta?
ES: It’s all about social impact, and how this program can be used for job creation and economic development. Another unique offering we have to support this objective is an RFQ for social impact funds interested in making investments in affordable housing or other projects that lead to living wages, job creation and help to eliminate food deserts. We had a good response to our request. While we’re not making recommendations for these funds, and we’re not brokers, we do want to make sure that information is available on our web portal. These funds and projects have indicated they would share information with Invest Atlanta, including job creation, housing units created and so on. If you’re interacting with Invest Atlanta, we want to know about the social impact of your activities.
For comments, questions or concerns, please contact Amy Sorter
Tags: Opportunity Zones