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Who Will Lead the Change?

Drexel’s Metro Finance Lab director on how innovative Opportunity Zone leadership can bridge the divide between the haves and have-nots

Drexel’s Metro Finance Lab director on how innovative Opportunity Zone leadership can bridge the divide between the haves and have-nots

Several months ago, in a paper I wrote for the Knight Foundation, I identified the lack of local capacity as one of the major barriers to Opportunity Zone success:

Realizing the full potential of Opportunity Zones requires that a disparate group of urban institutions act with purpose and discipline along multiple fronts. Yet the current health and capacity of local government and other institutions make this a challenge. In many communities, local governments simply do not have the capacity or professional expertise to design, finance and deliver sophisticated market and social initiatives. The public sector is also highly fragmented, divided across multiple layers of government, specialized agencies and independent public authorities. On the private and civic side, most communities collaborate through loosely organized informal networks that do not have sufficient capital or capacity. In addition, many nonprofit organizations are either too small to affect systemic change or too circumscribed in focus to drive sustainable impact. Cities should use Opportunity Zones as a vehicle for modernizing and redefining their institutions to maximize economic, social and environmental impact.

I have been thinking a lot since then, with colleagues like Rick Jacobs, the CEO of Accelerator for America, about how to solve the capacity challenge. The most obvious, immediate solution is for local and national philanthropies and corporations to provide the resources to fund additional staff within government or institutions focused on the Opportunity Zone mission. Several entities have risen to the occasion.

Do SomethingBaltimore’s Abell Foundation, for example, issued a grant last year to the Baltimore Development Corporation to hire an Opportunity Zones coordinator. The coordinator promotes development in the Zones and acts as the primary point of contact with a broad mix of potential investors and city stakeholders.

There are several organizations that are trying to replicate this model across multiple cities. The FUSE Corps, for example, is now working with Accelerator for America and various foundations to deploy executive-level fellows in California cities like Fresno. The Rockefeller Foundation has initiated a six-city effort in collaboration with LISC. Opportunity Alabama has taken a different route, working to facilitate a statewide Opportunity Zone ecosystem with funding from Alabama Power and others.

Capital, as with most things, is not the constraint here, leadership and organizational focus is.

These investments and others are commendable. But let’s be brutally frank. The scale of capacity-building resources committed or deployed to date is infinitesimal compared to the level of market-oriented equity that could be enticed by Opportunity Zones and the volume of public, private civic resources that could be leveraged.

Custom HaloWhere is the federal government? Where are state governments? This seems to be a time ripe for technical assistance, an investment quite common in the early phases of government programs. Where is the broader philanthropic community? Or national or regional financial institutions? Or anchor companies, universities and hospitals?

The country could easily use hundreds of executive-level fellows either funded or seconded. Capital, as with most things, is not the constraint here, leadership and organizational focus is.

And there is ample room for creativity. Dan Carol, formerly with the State of California, was an early advocate for “deal jockeys” that could assist multiple communities, a circuit rider system in essence. Perhaps deal jockeys could be deployed around particular asset classes or investment sectors and work through existing structures like State Leagues of Cities or the new intermediaries that are forming around Opportunity Zones.

There is another complementary way to solve for capacity. In the end, markets are built through seasoned data, routinized analytics and common deal structures and capital stacks, so that the market can repeat itself, adapting, of course, for market condition and local variance.

Where is the federal government? Where are state governments? This seems to be a time ripe for technical assistance, an investment quite common in the early phases of government programs.

Over the past 18 months an unusual network of reflective practitioners and applied researchers, working in close concert with the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel and Accelerator for America, have tried to accelerate the routinization of the Opportunity Zone market through a mix of market-oriented tools and analysis.

The Opportunity Zone Investment Prospectus, designed to help cities communicate their assets and, ultimately, identify deals that are investor ready and community enhancing, is the furthest along. 50-plus cities either have completed Prospectuses or are engaged in creating one. The Opportunity Zone Investment Prospectus Guide, the product of work started with Jeremy Nowak and Ken Gross, makes the template transparent and adaptable.

With our exceptional partners, the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel and Accelerator for America are now working to invent the next round of tools and analysis, which can be the foundation for a new system of Community Wealth Building:

    • Zone Typologies to show how 8,762 separate Opportunity Zones ultimately break down into 20-25 investment geographies with similar economic and social characteristics and competitive assets (e.g., downtowns, medical districts, industrial districts, low-income residential areas), which, in turn, create a platform for routinized kinds of discrete products (multifamily housing, commercial real estate, business startups);
    • Deal Prototypes and Playbooks to describe and codify new concepts for driving responsible market investment in low-income communities (Ross Baird’s “Street Corners,” Streetlight Ventures’ related Commercial Corridor vision) and show how they can be brought to life through a mix of public, private, civic and community action;
    • Deal Books to unveil the mix of debt, subsidy and equity – the new “capital stacks” – that are driving real Opportunity Zone deals and creating new norms and models around the financing of workforce housing, commercial real estate nodes, small businesses and other socially critical investments;
    • Shared Equity Models (like the Neighborhood Trust idea championed by Cornell Professor Joe Margulies and Brian Murray of Shift Capital) to ensure that the value created by Opportunity Zones can be captured and deployed by new community intermediaries and redound to the benefit of local residents and businesses; and
    • City Cases to unpack the enabling features of institutions that have the capacity, capital and community standing to deliver inclusive growth and development.

In other words, there is a method to our madness. As Michael Saadine and I wrote recently on LinkedIn, we need to bring “ordered thinking to understand and efficiently leverage a national landscape of over 8,700 tracts.”

Read MoreAll of us recognize that Opportunity Zones are an imperfect tool and that we are likely to see a mix of “good, bad and ugly” transactions. But it is also a vehicle for defining a new paradigm of Community Wealth and organically building a new system for blending public, private, civic and community leadership and capital in ways that upgrade skills, grows entrepreneurs, increases incomes, builds assets and drives transformative outcomes for people and places left behind.

Bruce Katz is the director of the new Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, created to help cities design new institutions and mechanisms that harness public, private and civic capital for transformative investment.

Photo courtesy Danny Navarro / Flickr

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