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Palisades hosts roundtable discussion of opportunity zones
A.J. Tedesco, McKeesport community development director, McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko, HUD Pittsburgh Office Field Director Michael Horvath and HUD Region III Administrator Joe DeFelice talk following a visit to the vacant Penn-McKee Hotel, Downtown. (Tube City Almanac photo)
Less than a month after visiting McKeesport to encourage the city to take advantage of the Financial Opportunity Zone program, a federal official returned with two colleagues to help him make his case.
McKeesport needs a team of “cheerleaders” to sell the city’s advantages to prospective investors, said Joseph J. DeFelice, Region III administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development.
“You have proximity” to Pittsburgh, DeFelice said during a roundtable discussion Thursday morning with business owners, elected officials and community leaders at the Palisades Ballroom, Downtown.
McKeesport residents also must shake off their own negativity, he said.
“You have affordable housing,” he said. “You have a riverfront. You need a team, a quarterback and cheerleaders.”
DeFelice was accompanied by Cosmo Servidio, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Curt Coccodrilli, state director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Following the discussion, the officials visited the nearby Penn-McKee Hotel along with Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh.
In 2019, the preservation group produced a study that concluded the hotel could be reused for commercial purposes that would serve the nearby McKees Point Marina and Great Allegheny Passage bike trail.
The city and the Young Preservationists have applied for a grant through the EPA to remove environmental hazards from the building.
Financial Opportunity Zones were created in the federal tax bill passed by the U.S. Congress in 2017. They enable investors who are subject to capital gains taxes to defer payment of those taxes by investing in projects in opportunity zones.
Those zones must include census tracts that have high rates of poverty and below-average median household incomes. There are 68 such zones in Allegheny County, including three in McKeesport.
“If people invest in those zones, there are a ton of tax incentives,” DeFelice said. “And if you apply for federal grants for use in those opportunity zones, you get federal preference points.”
The preference points could give McKeesport an edge if it’s competing for funding against wealthier communities, he said.
More than 200 federal programs will be granting those preference points to projects in opportunity zones, DeFelice said. About 20 of the programs are currently active, he said.
Coccodrilli said that although it may seem strange for a representative of the Department of Agriculture to visit McKeesport, there are programs that could be used in the city, especially along the riverfronts.
“Where the (bike) trail leaves off, rural development can pick up with programs for improving streetscapes, sidewalks and storefronts,” he said.
DeFelice suggested that McKeesport could attract investment from people who grew up in McKeesport and have since become wealthy through sports, entertainment or business. The city of Erie started a “homecoming fund” in which former residents could invest, he said.
“Create your own fund,” DeFelice said. “You know what you need. Work with Sen. (Jim) Brewster’s office. Work with your state representatives.”
Jason Togyer is editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published September 04, 2020.