Art Block Rendering

This rendering by Slingshot Architecture shows the Art Block building.

WATERLOO — The city hosted a conference Wednesday to teach community leaders how the city’s new “opportunity zones” could help draw new development to Waterloo.

“This is just the first meeting to try to get the ball rolling and have conversation,” Mayor Quentin Hart told bankers, real estate brokers, developers, philanthropic agency leaders and others gathered at the Waterloo Center for the Arts for the day-long event.

The federal 2017 tax overhaul allowed census tracts with high poverty levels to be designated as opportunity zones. Developers can get federal tax breaks when reinvesting unrealized capital gains in projects within those zones.

Waterloo was able to secure opportunity zone designations for three census tracts, including two in and around the downtown area and a third covering the La Porte Road commercial corridor north of Crossroads Center.

“It is potentially a really, really powerful supply side incentive,” said Rick Jacobs, president of Accelerator for America. “It’s not a program. It’s just a tax incentive.”

Hart has been working with Accelerator for America, a nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance to cities on ways to combat economic insecurity. It has been helping other cities take advantage of opportunity zones.

Hart traveled to Birmingham, Ala., recently with Jacobs to see how opportunity zone incentives were helping renovate a vacant 20-story building into 140 units of workforce housing.

This week’s conference also included representatives of WSP USA, a global engineering and planning firm also working with cities on opportunity zones.

“Think of it as one very important and specific tool for your toolkit,” said John Porcari, president of WSP USA and former deputy director of the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Obama administration.

“It’s not a cure-all, but when you layer it with some of the other assistance out there … there’s great opportunity,” he added. “What’s most important is to start with a common vision of where you want to go together — what the community’s needs are — and to build around that.”

Waterloo Community Planning and Development Director Noel Anderson sees the opportunity zone tax benefits as something that can be layered with other programs, including tax-increment financing, to lure development.

Developers of the Art Block mixed-use building under construction at the RiverLoop Amphitheater are utilizing opportunity zone benefits.

The city is planning a $10 million reconstruction of La Porte and Hess roads over the next five years, which could work hand-in-hand with the opportunity zone in that area to revitalize the commercial corridor.

Opportunity zone benefits have also been eyed as a way to close possible funding gaps for the All-In Grocers project near U.S. Highway 63 and Franklin Street.

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