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In Unannounced Visit, HUD Secretary Stops in City

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
October 18, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Ben Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, visited McKeesport on Thursday to discuss the federal Financial Opportunity Zone program. The meeting with city officials and local business owners was closed to the public. (HUD photo via Twitter)

The federal secretary of Housing & Urban Development made an unannounced visit to McKeesport on Thursday to meet with city officials and local business owners.

Neither media nor the public were invited to the event with HUD Secretary Ben Carson, described as a roundtable discussion of the federal Opportunity Zone program with local business owners and developers.

It is the third time in as many months that HUD officials have visited McKeesport to discuss the Financial Opportunity Zone program, which provides tax incentives to people who invest in economically distressed areas.

Joseph J. DeFelice, Region III administrator for HUD, visited the city in both August and September.

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko described the visit as “non-partisan” and said the discussion was “productive.”

“To have all these individuals who have a vested interest in our city, regional redevelopment, and the trends of our national economy sharing ideas couldn’t be more valuable,” Cherepko said Friday.

The Financial Opportunity Zone program was created in 2017. Although Carson’s visit was not political in nature, HUD’s focus on McKeesport has come just weeks before the presidential election.

National and international media outlets have reported that Pennsylvania is one of the key states in President Trump’s re-election effort, and are speculating that the suburbs of Pittsburgh will provide the tipping point.

On Wednesday, according to HUD, Carson toured a development in Cleveland, Ohio, that is part of a federal Financial Opportunity Zone. Ohio is also considered a battleground state in the presidential election.

The Cleveland development, a 95-unit mixed-income apartment building called The Tappan, created 100 construction jobs and 25 permanent jobs, according to HUD. The building opened this summer.

DeFelice accompanied Carson to McKeesport for Thursday’s meeting, according to city officials. Also in attendance were Tim and Matt Watcher, who represented Knox Law Public Strategies and the Erie Downtown Development Corp.

The City of Erie has attracted more than $60 million in investment to its downtown area by leveraging the opportunity zone program, according to published reports.

The Erie Flagship Opportunity Zone is being driven by investment from Erie Insurance, which is headquartered in the city. The first phase of the development program includes 14 separate projects in Erie, including a food hall for nine local vendors that is designed to anchor a “culinary arts district” along the city’s waterfront.

In February, Forbes Magazine recognized Erie with one of four national grand prizes for its use of the opportunity zone program.

“I see a ton of promise in McKeesport,” DeFelice said in a press release after Thursday’s event. “This roundtable was about convening stakeholders and helping form the team that will move McKeesport forward in the future.”

He described the Erie group has “national leaders” on the opportunity zone program, adding, “they are proof that we all work best when we break down the silos of government and move in the same direction.”

Cherepko said the group convened Thursday at the Palisades Ballroom, Downtown, included potential investors, community stakeholders, development experts and federal leaders.

“It was extremely exciting to welcome Secretary Carson, his colleagues and his staff to our city for such a productive roundtable discussion,” Cherepko said. “We are forming a better understanding of our Opportunity Zones and how instrumental they can be for future development in the City of McKeesport.”

Jason Togyer is editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published October 18, 2020.

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