Updates from the White House Council on Opportunity Zones, with Scott Turner

Scott Turner

What is the state of Opportunity Zones from the perspective of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, now one year into its mission?

Scott Turner is executive director of the Council — a collaboration of 17 Federal agencies and Federal-State partnerships with a mandate to identify and disseminate best practices for utilizing the Opportunity Zones tax incentive and existing Federal resources to stimulate economic growth and revitalization.

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

Episode Highlights

  • How the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council (WHORC) has evolved in the one year since its initial formation.
  • Stories from the 60 cities across the country that Scott has visited over the past year, and the importance of sitting down and talking with local Opportunity Zone community stakeholders to collaborate on a revitalization strategy and long-term vision for the community.
  • The creativity and resolve of the citizens living inside of the distressed communities that the Opportunity Zone initiative is meant to impact.
  • Some of the biggest challenges that the WHORC has faced in its first year of existence.
  • Why expanding the number of Opportunity Zones may make sense, if more opportunities for economic growth and entrepreneurship is created for the benefit of distressed communities.
  • President Trump’s support for Opportunity Zones and what it’s like working for the President.
  • Why the amount of investment to date is encouraging, but how there is still more work to be done with Opportunity Zones.
  • How the Opportunity Zone incentive can be a catalyst for economic growth and social impact.
  • How the WHORC can help and protect distressed communities during COVID-19 recovery efforts.

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. What is the White House doing to promote opportunity zones? That’ll be the topic of today’s conversation. And joining me to discuss this is Executive Director of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, Scott Turner. Scott joins us today from his home office in Dallas, Texas. Scott, thank you for your time today, and welcome back to the podcast.

Scott: Thank you, Jimmy. I appreciate you having me.

Jimmy: And I really appreciate you joining me. I know you’re a busy man and it’s great that our listeners have the chance to hear from you directly. So first time we talked, Scott, about a year ago, a little over a year ago now, you were new. You were new to the position, the council was new. Now you’ve got about a year under your belt. You’ve been together a little more than a year, the council has. How has the council evolved over the last year? What have you seen take place?

Scott: Well, Jimmy, thank you. And that’s a great question and thank you to all the listeners of the podcast and you involvement inside of opportunity zones. The council has been tremendous. As you know, we have a total of 17 agency partners on the council, 15 federal, and then 3 state and regional partners.

And since the last time I was with you, we have toured and been to over 60 cities across the country and hosting roundtable convenings with stakeholders from various groups, be it elected officials, finance people, business owners, entrepreneurs, faith leaders, education leaders, really all to come together at the table and talk about, you know, what is the pain of the community? What’s the history of the community? And then to ideate really and collaborate together about hey, what is the strategy for revitalization and the potential and the long term vision for the community.

And I will say, man, I have been very humbled and just encouraged that every trip that I’ve taken to all of the cities that I’ve been to, to be able to sit at the table with these various stakeholder groups and partners and talk about the community and look at the strategy and have a vision together. I wish that everyone in our country could just witness that and partake in that just one time, I believe that they will be very encouraged about just how innovative and creative people are in this country, really the resolve of the citizens inside of our distressed communities of America, Jimmy, that have, you know, been adversely affected through the years be it from a poverty standpoint, or be it from a crime standpoint, or a low-income standpoint but just the resolve and just the spirit of the people in this country.

So when you asked about how has the council evolved, you know, we have evolved because of the American people that we’ve been with, you know. And this has been an excellent journey thus far.

Jimmy: That’s phenomenal that you’ve been able to visit so many cities. I know when we first talked, you had only visited a handful. Now a year later, over 60 cities that you’ve held these roundtable discussions across this listening tour. Pull the curtain back a little bit more, maybe you’ve got one or two good stories, some anecdotes that you’ve heard from some of these community stakeholders. What kind of stories do you have to share with us maybe one or two?

Scott: The last trip I went on was to Coatesville, Pennsylvania. And Coatesville is a town you know, just a hardhat, blue-collar, you know, industrial town in Pennsylvania. And we went there and hosted a roundtable with the mayor. And we had 12 agency partners represented in Coatesville, PA. And just the excitement and the gratitude of the people there in Coatesville, we began to speak about Coatesville and go on tours of opportunity zone projects, and one in particular, a business there where they have repurposed a building in Coatesville and are building it out inside of an opportunity zone to house and to train, and to nurture and incubate, if you will, young people that have inventions and things that they’ve created, you know, new invention, and manufacturing. And this is in Coatesville and I just spoke to the owner of that building and the business and she says, “Scott, we are moving ahead and forging ahead.” And the visit by the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council really spurred the people and invigorated the people here in Coatesville to action. And so that’s one.

And in Colorado Springs, you know, they’re doing a tremendous job of partnering together and building a coalition throughout the region inside of opportunity zones to create new businesses and to spur economic development. Birmingham, Alabama, as I spoke about before, has done a tremendous job. In Cleveland, Ohio, and in places in Georgia, High Point, North Carolina, I mean, the stories go on and on.

And I would say we just finished our best practices report and gave it to the President, where these stories and anecdotes and examples will be made public here very soon on our website, opportunityzones.gov. But you can also see our one year report there to the President and read about the action of the council. And I think it will really encouraged people and teach people as well about what we’ve been up to.

Jimmy: Excellent. Yeah, I’ll be sure to link to those reports in the show notes for today’s episode as well. What’s been the biggest challenge for you, Scott, and for the council over that first year dealing with these opportunity zone communities?

Scott: You know, I consider everything that we do a plus in the sense of, I don’t look at things negatively and say, “Oh, you know, that’s just a huge challenge.” You know, things that are challenging to me, Jimmy, are opportunities. Things such as the amount of travel, you know, and me having the desire to get to everyone across the country, you know. And that’s a challenge in the sense of, you know, we have a big country, and we have 8,700-plus opportunity zones. So that’s one of the major challenges, is just to travel and getting to people.

But we have been doing an extraordinary job and people have been very welcoming. I think another one is, you know, to help people understand the importance of the opportunity zone legislation, to understand the spirit of the law, and the spirit of the council. You know, when I say that’s a challenge, meaning that that is something that I myself and our team that we shout from the rooftops you know, the spirit of it and the purpose of it, and the strategy, and the long term vision of it, you know. And I know people sometimes get tired of hearing me say it, but I’m gonna keep saying it, because I believe in it, and I know that it’s working and that it’s true, you know.

But one thing I do want to highlight, you know, there’s been questions, you know, really every city we go to about the zones that were chosen, or can we expand the zones or, you know, can we redo the zones. And so it’s challenging in that sense that people, you know, they don’t know, and someone has to come and say, “Hey,” you know, “They’ve been certified for 10 years, and we gotta do the very best we can, you know, with the ones that we do have.” But that’s a question that I get a lot but as far as this challenge is they’re now all opportunities to me.

Jimmy: There have been some pieces of legislation brought forth recently that have called for expanding the number of zones. Like the questions that you get from people, I get those questions too. I get people…I had somebody email me just earlier this morning, “Hey, I’ve got this property. How do I make it an opportunity zone?” I had to tell him that that ship has sailed, unfortunately. But there are some pieces of legislation being introduced that would call for just that. Do you support the potential expansion of opportunity zones, or does the White House support it potentially?

Scott: You know, I support things that are done the right way. I think that the way that we have done it thus far, has worked in a tremendous manner, you know. When I see governors or state leaders and territory leaders that, you know, are asking these questions, obviously, you know, I have a heart for them, and I understand why they’re asking. But I think that, you know, if we expand them in the proper way to give opportunity for more economic growth and more entrepreneurship inside of distressed communities whereby the benefit is in the distressed community, yes, of course, I support that.

Jimmy: Good. President Trump is a very polarizing figure, of course, but he’s been a very vocal supporter of opportunity zones from early on. I’m curious, Scott, for you, what’s he like behind closed doors? And what’s it like working with him on this?

Scott: The man is tremendous. He is an adamant supporter of opportunity zones, and he is a tremendous support for the work that we do. And how you see him vocally in public about opportunity zones, he’s the same way in private. And he is like, you know, “Whatever we need to do, however I can support you all and opportunity zones, you know, obviously done the right way and keep it in the spirit of the law, and making sure that is impacting those on whom we wanted to impact.”

He’s 100% behind it, you know, and so, you know, I say all this, he’s very supportive, you know, publicly and behind closed doors. And so that really makes my assignment and my job that much more delightful, you know because he believes in what we’re doing. You know, I operate under a presidential executive order as the executive director so that’s a great privilege and very humbling for me to do so, you know. So he’s 100% supportive of the mission and he wants to see it succeed for the long term, you know, for having generational impact. That’s his heart behind it.

Jimmy: Good. It must be…it must feel good to have your boss 100% behind you on that, I’m sure. In your opinion, Scott, do you feel that the opportunity zone incentive is being used as much as it should be right now? I get the sense that, in many ways, there’s still this being a relatively new program and the regulations only having been finalized about five or six months ago that public awareness of this program still hasn’t really taken hold like it should. Do you feel like there’s more that could be done with opportunity zones? And how do you think adoption can become more widespread?

Scott: Yes. I always feel like there should be done…that more could be done, Jimmy. I mean, I just… But that’s the type of person I am, you know. And I think, you know, to be satisfied with what’s been done, I think is a mistake. I’m content in the sense of, I’m grateful for the work that has been done thus far. But I know in my heart of hearts that more will be and more should be and must be done. And I’m grateful for Dan Kowalski and the people there at Treasury for getting the rules and the regulations finalized. That was a huge help and gave a lot of clarity. And I would encourage people, you know, hey, the green light is here. You know, it’s time to go. It’s time to move.

And you know, but a positive and a very encouraging thing is there’s been tens of billions of dollars that have been invested inside of qualified opportunity funds into qualified opportunity zone projects, businesses, you know, retail housing and thus far. So I’m very encouraged about, you know, the amount of investment, you know, that has been made thus far and I think we’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg. I think there’s a lot more to be done and that will be done. And as far as the public awareness, we just had to keep telling the story.

And I’m grateful for you, Jimmy, you know, and having these times of interviews and educating people like you do and telling the story. And that’s what we need more of, we need more ambassadors or more advocates, you know, to speak about the initiative and to speak about, you know, just the powerful mission that it is that could really be a catalyst of growth both from an economic standpoint and a social impact standpoint for our country.

So I encourage people, you know, keep shouting it. You know, keep living and keep investing. Keep building, man, because you’re talking about people that have dreams, but they don’t have access to resources. Those people are now being…you know, are coming to the forefront and being part of the team and starting businesses. Man, that’s what America is.

You know what, Jimmy, right now, I literally in my hand am holding an American flag, in my hand. Just a small, little wooden, you know, American flag that I put in my wife’s flowerpot. And it just reminds me, man, of why I’m doing this and it’s for our country, you know. And so I’m grateful for how well it’s going and I’m grateful and excited to see how much more we will do.

Jimmy: Oh, that’s great, Scott, that’s great to hear. And that’s my mission is, you know, at both OpportunityDb.com and my advisory service business at OZ Pros is to make the benefits of this opportunity zone legislation as accessible as possible to really help those small business entrepreneurs that are the backbone of our nation’s economy. You know. That’s my whole intent is to help these people actually do opportunity zones, actually participate in them.

Scott: That’s right.

Jimmy: I know you’re short on time today, Scott, I got just one more question for you. Just an update, if you could. When the council was first introduced, your first paper introduced a five-leg workstream. Maybe you can give just a quick update on each one, and the five legs being economic development, entrepreneurship, safe neighborhoods, education, and workforce development, and finally, measurement and analysis. If you could give a brief update on each one of those, that’d be great.

Scott: Right. And you know, I would encourage people to go to the website, opportunityzones.gov, and read about each one of those pillars and read about the resources that are available from the different agencies. We have it broken down into those five workstreams, really four workstreams, and then you know, measurement and analysis of CEA.

But go to the website and study those workstreams because one, it’s very educational. Two, you can see what resources are coming up or what resources are available, you know, inside of those workstreams for your business or for your opportunity zone project, which I think will be very, very helpful. And as you know, man and I think it was April 22nd, the President expanded…he asked Secretary Carson as chairman of the council to expand and broaden the vision of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council to encompass the whole of the distressed communities including opportunity zones, and this is post-COVID to help with the recovery of America.

So those five pillars that you see are yet still active, they’re still in place. But everything has been brought now with the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, to help and to protect distressed communities in the recovery of COVID.

Jimmy: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that opportunity zones can be a focal point in the COVID-19 recovery efforts, absolutely.

Scott: No question.

Jimmy: Well, Scott, thank you so much for your time today. You’re a busy man so I’m gonna let you go. And you’ve already told our listeners they can go to opportunityzones.gov and there you can learn a lot more about the different resources that the White House and the federal government have collaborated on to provide for…whether you’re an opportunity zone fund, or a business, or another community stakeholder, you can find out everything that the White House is doing there at opportunityzones.gov. And I believe you can find the list of grants that may be available as well. Is that right, Scott?

Scott: Yes, sir.

Jimmy: Very good Scott. And for our listeners out there today, I will have show notes for today’s episode available on the Opportunity Zones Database website. You can head over to opportunitydb.com/podcast, and there I’ll have links to all of the resources that Scott and I discussed on today’s show. Scott, again, thanks for coming on. I appreciate your time.

Scott: All right. Thank you, Jimmy.