Hey Opportunity Zones, You Up?

CB 12 Oz Map

I just wanted to see what’s up even though we were cool ten years ago.

Late on a Fall evening in 2018, I stumbled upon a dynamic map of opportunity zones. With two fingers scrolled across my screen on a map of America, I began zooming in on certain states to see where their greatest areas of need were. If you are already confused as to what I am talking about that is ok: you are not alone. In fact, a number of people reading about, managing opportunity zones, or considering funding them are also in your shoes. To further explain, let me go back in time to 2008.

The big bubble burst.

The year 2008 seemed so promising when it started. It was the year of my graduation from college, where I was expected to be propelled into the “real world” to start frantically adulting. It was also the year Kanye West’s album “Graduation” came out; with its title song playing on every radio station. Organically, it became my theme song for the first half of the year. When May rolled around I walked (read: sped-walked) across the stage of Nassau Coliseum swelling with pride as the first to graduate from college in my family.

My parents and I very much expected me to have a job within a month or so, and for adulting to officially commence (haha). While this seemed to be a realistic goal at the time, it is not what happened. Rather, I spent the entire summer going to every interview, calling businesses in the phone book (here is an explanation Gen Z’ers), and begging for an opportunity to showcase my newly acquired grad skills. Ultimately, in the Fall I landed my first role as a Store Manager at Target (a job that did not fit my skills then or now) — but hey I was employed!

Looking back we now know why myself and most of my fellow ’08 graduates struggled with employment, and why we lived at home for longer. The entire market burst into smithereens — and what followed was a series of bailouts, anti-corporate movements (Yea Occupy!), and cities building back their local economies from scratch. Major urban areas like New York City and San Francisco had the capacity and connections to start building fast — focusing on building technology ecosystems.

However, there were still major regions left out of the equation which did not have the resilient capacity of a city with billions in taxpayer revenue. Similarly, there were communities even within these major cities, that had been long ignored. These areas were not developed, gentrified, or catalyzed; rather they kind of froze in time watching as the rest of the world began talking about 5G, driverless cars, and IoT (please message me if you can explain IoT in one sentence).

So, this is when the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank, and Senator Tim Scott partnered to craft the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. In this policy, opportunity zones were introduced as economically distressed census tracts that can receive investments in exchange for some nice capital gains for the investors. There are currently 8,700 census tracts identified as opportunity zones in America. This includes the entire island of Puerto Rico (yes, the whole island) and this lovely stretch of river next to Manhattan.

Alas, A Chance To Bring People Up to Speed.

Nearly everyone is talking about opportunity zones. I recently attended a startup event where people asked about opportunity zones (OZ’s) and if they can help their startup in anyway. OZ’s are now becoming trendy amongst people who may not even be interested in economic development or investment gains. From the outside, this looks like a trend that can really catch some regions up to speed, based on their needs.

Or, maybe just maybe, we are letting the buzziness of the term jump ahead of the fact that OZ’s are meant to help people. PEOPLE are at the entire root of this — -there would be no market without people. There would be no capital gains without people. So we must be sure that OZ’s are for people and not against.

My time spent with my team at Seam Social Labs is dedicated to looking at economic development in a new way; one that is community-driven, people-first and committed to equity. As a result, we are spending our time developing Synergize Insights, a platform that presents opportunity zones along with their community needs for investors and developers. More on this in another post, but before we even get into conversations on data, tech, and fancy algorithms I want to think about an OZ as a person.

Opportunity Zones IRL

If an opportunity zone were a person, how would it react if I sent a late night text message? The message I will likely send after scrolling on that map of highly dense needs. The message that comes as a meaningful after thought, because I almost forgot about these areas in the first place. Honestly, I just wanted to know if OZ would be interested in talking? Perhaps in helping me maximize in all these capital gains. As scintillating of a relationship as this could be, I am presently starting to feel like opportunity zones do not even know their own potential.

If this were a novel, opportunity zones would be the shy kid in the room, with the bright mind who is too scared to talk to anybody. Unless that opportunity zone is in New York City; then it would be the bold woman who shouts “just leave” to a corporate giant, but whimpers and begs for a return when the door closes and writes letters to get the corporate giant back.

I would like to consider this publication an existential thinkpiece on what it means to be an opportunity zone; a piece of land that is so tax-friendly it’s causing its own market to form. However, my entire purpose in writing this is to showcase that opportunity zones are communities and communities are filled with people. While it seems so easy to look at these maps and see all of the vast investment opportunities, I also wonder about the people.

Stop and Look Around.

Yes, I am a sappy social entrepreneur, who is hoping that when a biotech startup launches in East New York, that someone is working on a bridge program to ensure the neighborhood understands what biotech is. We have a habit in a society of leaving people behind and declaring them as incapable of adapting but the reality is it’s hard for anyone to adapt to what you don’t know or understand.

I know things from googling them, because I have wi-fi and a working computer, and am surrounded by lovable geeks. But if your reality is taking care of your family, in a community without IoT (did I use that right?), working in a dying industry — your capacity is limited and your concerns are growing.

So my call to you, dear reader, is the next time you are in an area where you can envision opportunity and growth, take a moment. Look around at the people there and make sure to personally connect with them. The world moves so fast (1,000 miles per hour to be exact) and we should take more time to dig deep for empathy and consider how the people beyond those opportunities can be supported.