LARGO — Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford hosted the Opportunity Zone Leadership Task Force regional summit for Prince George’s County to discuss how county leadership and the task force is looking to take advantage of the county’s Opportunity Zones on Aug. 7.
The Opportunity Zone Leadership Task Force has had meetings in different regions throughout the state, including Baltimore, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, to discuss what the development of Opportunity Zones will mean for those counties, said Rutherford, who is the chair of the task force.
The Opportunity Zone Program is a national effort that is administered by the U.S. Treasury Department and was created as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It is intended to be a catalyst for long-term investments in low-income areas by providing federal tax incentives for investment in distressed communities over the next 10 years.
The Maryland Opportunity Zone Leadership Task Force was established by an executive order enacted by Gov. Larry Hogan in January 2019. Following the regional summits, the task force will develop a State Opportunity Plan to align Opportunity Zone goals with state and local economic and cultural priorities as well as partnering with local governments.
“I do believe that the Opportunity Zones Program represents an exciting endeavor for our entire state and for this region, and for many communities, it is going to make a big difference in what they need, the needs that they have,” Rutherford said.
As the task force has met with stakeholders throughout the state, they have been successful in getting information from the public and officials that will assist them in improving individual communities, Rutherford said.
Prince George’s County especially has the chance to benefit from the Opportunity Zones Program because the county contains 25 Opportunity Zones.
“We think it is a magnificent opportunity for us to continue to develop in the county and to bring additional business, jobs and opportunities here and we’ve seen that there is no better place than Prince George’s County for this kind of opportunity to exist,” County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said during the meeting.
The City of New Carrollton is one of those Opportunity Zones that is already seeing robust improvements, Alsobrooks said, with the Kaiser Permanente headquarters located there as well as one of the new (WMATA) headquarters that was recently announced.
Other Opportunity Zones that are currently seeing significant investment are College Park with development taking place around the University of Maryland. Another one is the Hampton Park Mall where a $250 million project was announced on July 24 that will include retail, offices and a $35 million Health and Human Services Building.
“Just the infusion throughout the county really has created a lot of excitement and interest not only here, but we are also seeing people come in from the district and other parts of the state, the excitement is here,” Alsobrooks said.
Delegate Erek Barron (D-24) added later in the meeting that the Central Avenue corridor should be a focus for the task force for transit-oriented development as it holds untapped potential due to its location and number of nearby Metro stations.
“Right now, we’re talking about what is a banking desert, a food desert, but there is so much opportunity not just for the 24th District but for Prince George’s and the state as a whole,” he said.
A significant interest for Opportunity Zone Leadership Task Force is transit-oriented development (TOD).
The goals of TOD are to increase transit ridership, create a place that is pedestrian-friendly and creates a safe development where people live, work and play, said Maryland Department of Transportation Director of the Office of State and Economic Development Nimisha Sharma who gave an overview of the objectives of the task force around TOD.
Driven by smart-growth initiatives, traffic congestion and a desire for a more walkable lifestyle and connected communities, the idea is that development is centered within a half-mile radius around the transit station. Anything farther than a half-mile is considered transit-adjacent development.
Prince George’s County Community College President Charlene Dukes detailed the impact that community colleges throughout the state can have on building up Opportunity Zones as well.
According to Dukes, community colleges have the possibility of having an enormous impact on the state as a whole as there are 16 community colleges strategically placed throughout the state that serve more than 50% of all Marylanders in post-secondary education.
Most of the jobs that will be available in 2025 and beyond have not been created yet and Opportunity Zones present a chance to do that, Dukes said. Community colleges can provide workers and people who can develop and invest in these areas.
“In addition to being a key partner in the transformation of work and employment, I believe that community colleges can play a key role in the much-needed role to ensure that economic equity for the communities where Opportunity Zones are identified and the surrounding communities around those zones,” Dukes said.
Although the Opportunity Zones involve capitalizing on low-income areas that vary in their specific needs, Rutherford emphasized that each Opportunity Zone will be treated equally in the process.
“I don’t want people to think we are just going to come in and pick winners and losers, it is still going to be a market-driven program,” Rutherford said. “We are going to leverage the private investment that comes in. In most cases, the state money is the last money that is coming in. But we want to make sure it is something that the local community wants. We don’t want to dictate from above where development is going to be.”
The Opportunity Zone Leadership Task Force will next have a briefing with the faith and nonprofit communities to learn more about their needs and how they can get involved, although a date for those meetings has not been determined. The task force must submit a final report by Oct. 1.