In 2019, Cities of Service launched the Guiding Opportunities program to ensure that decision making about Opportunity Zone investments includes community voices. Participating cities engaged residents and other local stakeholders to encourage development in Opportunity Zone that benefits local communities.
In partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation and with additional support from The Prudential Foundation, the program supported Chief Opportunity Zone Officers in five cities. Cities of Service provided each city with $25,000 and technical assistance and placed two full-time AmeriCorps VISTA members in each city hall to provide additional capacity for resident engagement.
About Opportunity Zones
The Federal Government enacted the Opportunity Zone program as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to stimulate economic development and mobility in low-income communities by encouraging investment with tax incentives. Community engagement is an important part of setting priorities for where and how new investments are made. Cities of Service AmeriCorps VISTA members, who have a specific focus on increasing the capacity of city hall and fighting poverty, are uniquely qualified to help cities improve outcomes for low-income communities by better engaging their citizens.
Cities found a variety of ways to bring communities into decision making. They created community-driven working groups of local stakeholders and developed new websites and resources to connect investors with projects that benefited residents. City staff and AmeriCorps VISTA members also tabled at local events, hosted webinars, and organized neighborhood activities to connect with residents and learn about their needs and hopes for their neighborhoods. City leaders have incorporated what they learned into citywide strategic plans and have launched new programs to spark more equitable development.
Over the course of the program, city officials hosted more than 60 information-sharing events and planning meetings, and participated in 90 additional events as guests to connect with residents and stakeholders. City leaders also worked with partners to launch initiatives that will inspire development and investments benefiting local communities.
Supporting Black Small Business Owners in Oakland
The Oakland Guiding Opportunities team was particularly focused on connecting with Black business owners. Early outreach efforts by the AmeriCorps VISTA members opened up lines of communication that were reactivated when the city issued a shelter-in-place order in response to the emerging COVID-19 health crisis. During the pandemic, Oakland’s Business Development Department launched an outreach program and an online survey of business owners to collect information about the immediate impact of the shutdown. The AmeriCorps members joined other department members to follow up with businesses to further assess their needs, inform them of available resources, and guide them through application processes that could be difficult to navigate.The information gathered was used to create the city’s pandemic response, including a commercial rent moratorium and new grant program from small businesses. As the city began to resume non-essential commercial activity, Adrienne and Lydia led an effort to prepare and distribute PPE kits to Oakland businesses, primarily in East Oakland Opportunity Zones. This undertaking provided nearly 2,000 kits to businesses, including face masks, reusable cloth masks, a face shield, disposable gloves, and hand sanitizer.
Creating a Stronger Network of Stakeholders in St. Louis
The St. Louis Guiding Opportunities team established two working groups: the Opportunity Zone Working Group, focused on funding and potential investors and identifying potential projects, and a Community Engagement Group representing grassroots and nonprofit organizations, small business, and other stakeholders, including many who were new to the Opportunity Zone process. These coalitions, created at the outset of the program, led to greater collaboration outside and inside city government and helped city staff integrate community feedback and resident needs into investment and development plans. By bringing together stakeholders and creating a strong network of support, St. Louis increased the impact of their work.
Working with Partners to Support Communities in Washington, DC
The Guiding Opportunities team in Washington, D.C., established a partnership with their local LISC chapter to launch RESILIENT TOGETHER, a creative placemaking initiative supporting partnerships between small businesses and local artists led by people of color. Launched in Ward 8, this initiative seeks to spur creative and safe strategies to help small businesses sustain their customer base amidst the changing circumstances of COVID-19. Winning projects include a storytelling series, projects that educate residents about food, murals, and more.
Connecting Investors, Developers, and Residents Online in Atlanta
The Atlanta Guiding Opportunities team created a web platform to engage developers, investors, and businesses. The site displays investment opportunities and other resources, such as financing information and additional incentives available to developers. The site also allows residents in Opportunity Zones to submit their own photos, say what they love about their neighborhood, and share what they want for their community. This tool invites residents to be part of telling their community’s story and an example of the way cities created spaces for community voices in local development.
Improving Processes in Newark
The Newark Guiding Opportunities team is improving its permits and licensing systems for new businesses, and prioritizing support for minority-owned businesses in Opportunity Zones. Centralizing these processes and making them faster and easier for residents to use will spur the local economy. The city is also working on a way to illustrate the impact of these investments using a GIS mapping tool that will allow residents to track Opportunity Zone deals in their neighborhoods, jobs are being created by these projects, and how they will transform the neighborhood.