Scott Turner: The White House’s Vision for Opportunity Zones

Scott Turner

How can the resources of the Federal government be leveraged to help deliver generational impact to Opportunity Zone communities?

Scott Turner is the newly appointed executive director of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council — a group of cabinet members and White House officials charged with coordinating Federal agency efforts to magnify the impact of investments in Opportunity Zones.

Click the play button below to listen to my conversation with Scott.

Episode Highlights

  • The mission of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council.
  • Personal anecdotes from Scott’s nationwide Opportunity Zone listening tour.
  • The vision of Opportunity Zones as having the potential for generational impact.
  • Scott’s role as an ambassador for Opportunity Zones, not just for the White House, but for the communities that will be impacted.
  • How the Council will better facilitate inter-agency cooperation within the Federal government.
  • Why transparency and accountability are vital at the fund level, local level, state level, and national level.
  • How Opportunity Zone success should be measured.
  • How the Council has been addressing concerns of resident displacement.
  • The people most vital to the success of the Opportunity Zones program.
  • The five work streams of the Council: 1) economic development; 2) entrepreneurship; 3) safe neighborhoods; 4) education and workforce development; and 5) measurement.

Featured on This Episode

About the Opportunity Zones Podcast

Hosted by OpportunityDb.com founder Jimmy Atkinson, the Opportunity Zones Podcast features guest interviews from fund managers, advisors, policymakers, tax professionals, and other foremost experts in opportunity zones.

Show Transcript

Jimmy: Welcome to the “Opportunity Zones Podcast,” I’m your host, Jimmy Atkinson.

In December of 2018, President Trump signed an executive order that created the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council. And I’m pleased to be meeting today with the Council’s executive director, Scott Turner.

Scott is a former football player. He played cornerback at the University of Illinois and in the NFL for nine seasons with the Washington Redskins, San Diego Chargers, and Denver Broncos. When his playing days ended, he turned his career toward business and politics. Prior to joining the White House earlier this year, he has previously served in the Texas House of Representatives. Scott, thank you for joining me and welcome to the show.

Scott: Thank you, Jimmy. Happy to be here.

Jimmy: Absolutely. So your first meeting with the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council was held in early April, just a few weeks ago. That was when you were initially introduced as the Council’s executive director. Tell me a little bit about the Council, who serves on it, how often do you meet? And what is its mission?

Scott: Oh, for sure. So the White House opportunity and Revitalization Council — which we effectively call WHORC — is made up of 13 federal agencies and three state and federal partners. So 16 team members, if you will. Anywhere from the Department of Justice, Commerce, Small Business Administration, EPA, Health and Human Services, the Treasury, the Attorney General, and so on and so forth. And so the Council itself is made up of dedicated agencies to be a part of the Council to help streamline and coordinate the resources of these said agencies into Opportunity Zones projects from a day to day basis.

What we’re doing right now is we’re going on a statewide, or excuse me, a nationwide listening tour. We’ve been to about seven cities so far in just a few short six weeks. We’ve been to Cleveland and Birmingham and Las Vegas and New Orleans, Chicago. We just recently return from Orlando and Tampa.

And the purpose of these, listening tours, the goal and to have roundtable discussions with the stakeholders of each community, be it of a state and federal and local government leaders, community leaders, faith based leaders, education leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors, as called for in the executive order from the president. And so these listened to us, help us to gather data, help us to learn about projects that may be going on, or the pain of those communities, some of the difficulties that they face and also the potential in these said communities and to develop best practices that we could share with the Council and with other cities around the country.

Jimmy: Community involvement in having those conversations very early on is crucial to the success of the program, I think.

I can tell from hearing you speak on this topic — I’ve had the opportunity to hear you speak now on a couple of different occasions — that this is a passion of yours. I don’t think anyone speaks more passionately on this topic than you do, if you don’t mind me saying so. And I’d like to play you a clip from a speech that you gave at the White House Opportunity Zone Conference back in April, just a couple of weeks after you were first introduced as the Council’s executive director.

Scott [Previously Recorded Speech]: This is the greatest team. I’ve been able to play on a lot of teams. San Diego, Washington, Denver. But this is the greatest team, because we have the opportunity to make a generational impact, us together. See, revitalization doesn’t have a color. It doesn’t have a party. Revitalization starts in the heart of every man. [Applause.]

Jimmy: Very impassioned speech. Got an ovation from the attendees there. And you speak in that clip of generational impact. And I’ve heard you refer to Opportunity Zones as giving us the chance for generational security as well. What do you mean by that exactly?

Scott: So generational impact is kind of the vision and the spirit behind this, because we are doing the work right now, if you will. And when I say we, I mean all of us, you included, those that are getting the information out, those that are going on a listening tour, those that are, that have written the legislation, the President in establishing the Council. Dr. Ben Carson and others, you know, the Ja’Rons and the Brookes and everybody that’s involved with this Council, as it’s going to take all of us, the state leaders, the community people, in order for this not just to be an initiative or in order for it not just to be a program, but when I say generational impact, meaning that as we do this the right way, the ramifications and the results of this will far outlast all of us.

See, there hasn’t been much investment, if you will, in these communities in decades upon decades. But I believe that as we implement these initiatives and as we keep our focus correct during the implementation and the projects and the things that take place in the said cities and communities, that the impact will be generational, that those kids that I see running around and the projects and the neighborhoods of America as I’ve seen on this listening tour, them and their children will be affected. And that’s what I mean when I say generational impact.

Jimmy: And what a positive impact that would be! I want to take a step back for a minute and hear a little bit more about your journey to this position. How did you get picked for this position with the Council? You were previously serving in the Texas State House for two terms. When did you first meet with HUD and the White House?

Scott: Well, last summer I was not just meeting, but just having discussions with them about criminal justice, you know, work that can be done in an inner city. How can we best serve people that are inner city? How could we help, you know, on a criminal justice stand from this? From my personal experience, from my background, not even having any idea that the executive order existed or that the White House Council on Revitalization was coming forth. Just kind of what my heart is about, criminal justice and distressed communities.

And so I received a communication from the White House on the executive order and if I would be interested in speaking to them about the executive director position. And that’s kind of how I flow. But it came, I think out of my personal experience, my experience in business, in being in the legislature, and also serving in the ministry and the NFL. I think all of those things have compounded and to prepare me and were part of the decision making process. And also on top of that, probably my passion and the ability to communicate.

Jimmy: You do communicate well. And you speak passionately about it as we’ve just heard. What is your role exactly as executive director of this Council? What does your day-to-day look like? How often are you meeting with the White House? Can you just take me through a typical day in the life of Scott Turner, the last a few weeks here?

Scott: So my job, well, I’m an ambassador, you know, an advocate and a voice piece for the White House Opportunity Revitalization Council. Yes, I’m the executive director. I mean I’m the leader of the Council, but I’m also, I am a 100 percent committed ambassador. Not just for the initiative, but for the people. That this initiative will benefit the investor and the people in the community. That’s my role. And to communicate and to teach people, “What is this about? What are Opportunity Zones about? What is the White House Council?”

It’s my job to teach, and I’m so glad that I have others in media like yourself that care about this initiative and people like from the EIG and Kresge and all these people that are teaching about this.

But my job is to be the ambassador and a leader for this and an advocate for it. But day-to-day, I lived this. I’m 100 percent Opportunity Zones when I wake up and when I go to sleep because the amount of people, and the brevity of this initiative is something that we have to be and I have to be very focused about. And also I’m having a great deal of fun teaching people and encouraging people and seeing the smiles on people’s face. That’s a big part of my day-to-day is knowing and seeing the people that is impacted.

Jimmy: Do you have a particular anecdote about any particular person you met recently? I know you’re on a kind of a tour, a listening tour through the country right now. Do you have any personal stories you’d like to share from, from your tour so far?

Scott: You know, I have a lot, but one that comes to my mind right off is a young developer in Cleveland, and they’re young, haven’t been out of college very long, but very passionate about making an impact in the community. Not just an investment and a return on investment, but the social impact in a community, and the excitement I saw in them in the developments and the projects that are coming online that they’re very involved with.

And also just here recently we were in Tampa and there was a lady who lived in one of the last housing projects in Tampa. And she has been designated as the resident representative, the president of the association of the housing project, and she’s gone through education about what our Opportunity Zones are, what does it mean to redevelop a neighborhood. She lives in the projects that she is the president of the association, but she’s also the teacher of the community. She’s teaching people about redevelopment. That has been the highlight on these tours that have gone on because it showed me this right here is what this is about. And she talked about lifting people out of poverty. She said, I am benefiting because of this. And so that has been a great highlight for me those far.

Jimmy: Absolutely. That sounds, that sounds tremendous, when the education that you’re putting out there, it kind of trickles down into the community and those community leaders can really start to take ownership of it.

Getting back to the Council’s work for a moment, and maybe it’s too early to have a definitive answer to this because we’re still in the early days; your Council was just set up a few weeks ago. But which federal programs specifically have been targeted by the Council so far? Do you, do you have any take on that so far?

Scott: Well, like I said before that it’s in the infancy stages, so it’s not that federal programs are being targeted. But each agency on the Council have programs, have competitive grants if you will, and they are all very committed to projects going on in opportunity zones, and it’s gonna be very excited to see the public private partnership come to pass, and the reality of those things come to pass. But as the days go ahead, you’ll start to see more targeting of resources into said Opportunity Zones from across the agency spectrum. The good thing about this now is that we can move as a singular team, and not just independent agencies putting resources here. We’re putting resources here, but this is a streamlined process now.

Jimmy: Yeah, I really see the Council as facilitating inter-agency cooperation on a level that we haven’t seen in a really long time.

Scott: That’s exactly right.

Jimmy: Measurement has become a key issue of the Opportunity Zones program. Treasury is currently seeking input on how they can best collect data and report on that data. A Bill was recently introduced to the Senate that would give Treasury a reporting mandate on qualified opportunity funds, something that was in the original legislation but stripped out of the final bill that passed as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. What’s your take on reporting and accountability of this Opportunity Zones initiative? And what do you feel would be inappropriate level of reporting?

Scott: Well, I think obviously, you know, the measurement and analysis is part of the work stream. It is the one of the legs of our five-leg work stream that the Council of Economic Advisers obviously is overseeing. And measurement and analysis and accountability and transparency are key in any operation. And that’s what we haven’t had previously. Is there transparency? Is there accountability?

And so it is a vital part of the Council. It’s a vital part of this initiative. And I believe because of that, when we start measuring and we see the true impact that the Council is making and the true impact that the Opportunity Zone projects are making. And I think from state to state, from city to city, and even the federal partnership, that we all need to see these numbers. We all need to see the impact, not just so we can say, hey, this is a great program. But to say, hey, you know what, we need to continue this or we need to do things better, or you know, where there may be deficiencies or we’re doing great in this area. Let’s keep that up. So it’s a vital part.

Jimmy: Federal mandates aside, do you feel that there may be a need or a place for the opportunity fund industry to self report and produce their own set of guidelines?

Scott: Well, you know, the good thing about this is that it’s a private industry-led deal. You know, we want it, you know, federalism is great. And allowing the private industry to operate in a way that they need to operate under the guise of the guidance and the regulations obviously from the Treasury. But I think we will see funds measuring because there’s capital that’s being risked; there’s resources that are being risked. And I’ve even heard of states and localities thinking about having measurement tools to see how Opportunity Zone investments are impacted from job creation, from wealth creation, from social impact, In these said states. So I think it’s important.

Jimmy: So, important on a federal level and at a local level and on the fund level as well. I know we’re still ironing out a lot of these details, but hopefully we’ll get a lot more clarity in the coming months.

How will you and the Council measure the success of Opportunity Zones. Or put a different way, when will you deem this program to be a success? What do you need to see in order to say, “Okay, we did our job; this is successful”?

Scott: Well hopefully it far outlasts me and we don’t just put it, “Okay, we’re done; we’re successful.”

I hope the success for this is, like I said before, generational. And I hope that the full manifestation of this will far outlast me.

The true success is, I mean we have little successes every day when we go on our listening tours because people are now educated. There’s clarity around the guidance, with the second tranche of rules. There is an Opportunity Zone website that’s coming out. That’d be a success, because then it’ll be a resource, the field manuals that are coming out; that’ll be a success.

But at the end of the day, job creation, right, and longterm sustainability of successes, people being lifted out of poverty and of government subsidies is a success. A tremendous success. Generations of people that are now working and our kids are being motivated to work and to start businesses to say, “I have a skill set to be an entrepreneur. I can actually be a business owner.”

That’ll be a success, and so on, and so forth.

Jimmy: Good. Good. One of the, probably the biggest criticism of the Opportunity Zones program so far has come from those who claim that this whole thing is just one big government subsidy for gentrification and it’s going to be ruinous for long-time residents of these economically distressed communities, the very people who this legislation is meant to help. What do you make of that criticism? And what steps is the Council taking to ensure that the residents of these communities don’t get displaced?

Scott: Well I’ve heard it on every city I’ve been to, about the concern for displacement. And everybody’s concern is different. There are some cities that are wishing they had development of any kind. Some are rural parts of our country, want any kind of development for the city.

But there are cities who have experienced displacement historically, and so I am not just sensitive but understanding of the displacement concern.

What we have been encouraging is, this is a two-pronged approach. There is economic development, and there is community development. There’s economic growth, and there is social impact. This is a two-way deal. And that is the heart of the legislation that was put forth. And that’s the heart of the Council, is that the people that are inside of these communities, that live in these communities, cannot only work there but they can thrive and they can benefit in the communities that are being revitalized.

That is the spirit of this Council. That’s the spirit of the legislation. From a Council standpoint, we are encouraging localities, and I have personally have been doing it to mayors, to local leaders, to commissioners, to governance, whoever it is. You locally can do many things if you will, and be creative to ensure that this displacement concern is kept not just at bay, but that it doesn’t happen. Property tax freezing helps, right? The permitting process, being creative and not putting such a burden on developers in a permitting process, right? And mayors and local leaders have the ability to do that. And so again, this is a locally led deal and a locally led driven, even when it comes to displacement, because remember those cities that Zones lie in, they want those cities to thrive and they want the people in those communities to thrive. And so you know what? They could be creative and make sure it happened.

Jimmy: Is it fair to say that local leaders, mayors and other community stakeholders may be the people who are the most crucial to the success of this program in the long run?

Scott: Yeah, they’re a part of the team, obviously. Very, very vital. But the community leaders, the people that live in the community also are vital. And their voice is vital. The decision making part from the mayors, from the community leaders, from the Council, that is vital to listen to the community, to listen to the people, and then to make those decisions.

And also investors, we’ve been encouraging investors to be at the table, encouraging faith leaders to be at the table, because together that collaboration together, they know what projects are needed and they also know what projects can create the longterm sustainability that we’re looking for.

Jimmy: If I’m a resident in one of these low-income communities that’s been designated an Opportunity Zone, and I have concerns about being driven out, what advice would you give to that person? What, what can he or she do?

Scott: Talk to the local leaders and we in partnership with that have also been talking to the local leaders, as I said before, to have community people at the table. That’s what’s unique about this, Jimmy. That’s what’s unique about this initiative, is that just it’s not investors and people coming in and doing development and not and not caring and just developing and getting out. This is the spirit of this and the way that this has been, structured is totally different. And so we’ve seen it with my own eyes, community boards being developed, of community, faith, education, entrepreneur, and investor leaders coming together, creating a plan, creating a strategy. And we’re seeing that all over.

Jimmy: That’s great. You spoke earlier about, you referred to the five different legs of the Council’s work stream. Can you go into what each of those five legs is?

Scott: Sure, you have economic development; you have entrepreneurship; you have safe neighborhoods; you have workforce and labor development; and then you have measurement and analysis, each which are being led by the various agencies. SBA when it comes to entrepreneurship. Commerce, when it comes to economic development. DOJ, when it comes to safe neighborhoods. Workforce and labor development by the Department of Labor and the Department of Education. And then the Council of Economic Advisers when it comes to measurement and analysis. So everybody has a tremendous assignment, and then the supporting agencies that come up on under these leading agencies. And so it’s a great team. These five work streams are going to make it a very efficient process.

Jimmy: You referred to yourself as an ambassador for the program, not only for the White House but as an ambassador for these communities, for the community leaders and residents as well. And you’re going on this listening tour and I think a lot of your role has been education and advocacy in these early days. How do you envision your role transforming over the coming months and, I believe the Council has some reports due to the president in the next few months. What are you doing in the next few months to prepare for that?

Scott: My role will always be the same.

I’m the advocate and ambassador for the program.

The Council has great, capable people on it to prepare the reports, which obviously I’m a part of. But I’m the voice in the streets for the people and for the initiative. And so I see myself doing that until the end. In addition to that, we are creating reports for the president. We are creating best practices. We are creating the website and the field manual. Those are the things that we’re creating, the everyday jobs that we’re doing, the resources that we created about as, as it comes to me. In addition to that, I am the ambassador for this program and I’ll do it until it, until I’m done. Because not only is that my job, but that’s my mission.

Jimmy: That’s great. I know that you’ve been on the job for less than two months, so forgive me for asking this prematurely, but have you had any successes yet, working with the Council and in getting out there?

Scott: Every day is a success. Every day that we get to go out and we get to listen to the people of America in distressed communities is a success, because it hasn’t been done, and we’re doing it on a daily basis now. Not just us on the listening tour. But those that are supporting us from the White House, from HUD, from the Council agencies. Every day that we do this, and we take a step closer to the, to the goals that we’ve set is a tremendous success. But the people that we’ve been able to touch and to listen to and to visit with, that in and of itself is a success. And the paradigm shift that’s going on in this country is a success to me.

Jimmy: Scott, you’re doing tremendous work. I love your passion, and I wish you nothing but the best of success. Thank you so much for joining me today. Before we go, can you tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about you and, and the White House Council? I don’t know if your website’s up yet or not, but I know it’s going to be up shortly?

Scott: Right. Yeah, so OpportunityZones.gov. Our goal is to have that up in about a four and a half, maybe five weeks, which will be a great portal and resource for the citizens of our country to go to and learn more about what we’re doing as a Council, what Opportunity Zones are. So hopefully about four or five weeks, that’ll be up.

Jimmy: Excellent. Well, listeners out there, I’ll have show notes on today’s episode on the Opportunity Zones Database website. You can find those at OpportunityDb.com/podcast and you’ll find links to all of the resources that Scott and I discussed on today’s show. Scott, again, I really appreciate your time. Thanks for coming on.

Scott: Absolutely. Grateful to be here.

Jimmy: Thank you.

Jimmy Atkinson

Jimmy Atkinson

Hi, I'm Jimmy Atkinson... I founded OpportunityDb in August 2018. I'm a veteran Internet entrepreneur with a background in economics and Web marketing. I previously founded ETFdb.com. These days, I am passionate about impact investing and tax-advantaged investment opportunities. At the crossroads of these two ideals is the opportunity zones program, a place-based tax policy intended to economically transform some of the poorest areas of the United States with new real estate and business development.

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