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Interest sparked in finding investors for low-income Macon neighborhoods

BEAU CABELL/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, Ga., 01/18/2019: Charise Stephens and Bob Fickling stand in front of their newly renovated U Create Macon at the corner of Third Ave. and Ward Street. The former store, vacant for nine years, has been renovated into a “maker’s space” in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.
BEAU CABELL/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, Ga., 01/18/2019: Charise Stephens and Bob Fickling stand in front of their newly renovated U Create Macon at the corner of Third Ave. and Ward Street. The former store, vacant for nine years, has been renovated into a “maker’s space” in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood. bcabell@macon.com

A new $15,000 grant being considered by Macon-Bibb County government will be used to help showcase 15 new designated “opportunity zones” and entice developers.

The zones are meant to spur economic growth in distressed neighborhoods by offering investors major tax breaks for doing business in those zones.

There are federal regulations preventing certain types of investments but everything from manufacturing to housing to restaurants and more would fit the mold.

Macon is home to Propel Opportunity Funds, a group that’s trying to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from investors for projects in opportunity zones across the nation.

Thus far, Propel has five projects planned. For example, in southwest Atlanta they have a 100-unit apartment complex and in Knoxville, Tennessee, there is college student housing would be built near the banks of a river offering “panoramic views” and various amenities.

Propel also has has plans to be involved in a federal tiny homes program for veterans. The group is looking to find projects in Middle Georgia as well, Propel’s co-founder and CEO Frank Austin said.

“What we’re looking for is the way to incentivize the distressed neighborhoods,” Austin said. “It may be apartment complexes, it may be senior homes, it may be an opportunity for a hotel or maybe rebuilding an entire community based on the needs and desire of the community.”

In one of the opportunity zones in Pleasant Hill, Charise Stephens co-founded U Create Macon.

U Create Macon is a “makerspace” inside a red brick two-story building in the heart of the historic black neighborhood where people can focus on entrepreneurship, music, digital arts and more.

The founders gathered donated furniture and applying some elbow grease from neighborhood residents and others to get the workspace open. It’s a type of investment not designed to make money, but could benefit residents and the neighborhood for a long time, said Stephens.

Stephens said she would welcome more investment into the community, such as more manufacturing or a business selling organic food inside a now vacant storefront.

The concept of an opportunity zone goes beyond just spurring economic development in poorer communities.

The tax breaks are the way the government is trying to fix the lack of development in certain communities by drawing in the investors, said Gregorio Caetano, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Georgia.

Business owners are typically mostly concerned about how a certain community benefits the company, he said.

The zones are a way to help them consider investing in areas where there can be benefits beyond profit.

“We do know certain types of investment have a qualitative effect,” Caetano said.

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