Nothing is carved in stone, and a lot of the details apparently still need to be work out. Nevertheless, three slices of downtown Portsmouth, including the historic Boneyfiddle district, along with an area northeast of the city around the Greater Portsmouth Regional Airport, have been named opportunity zones by the state, according to Robert Horton, Scioto County dconomic development director.
“It’s all brand new; we’re all excited about it,” Horton said Thursday after making the announcement during a meeting of the Southern Ohio Port Authority.
While he emphasized several times that details need to be worked out, Horton said essentially the opportunity zones will allow persons — or presumably companies — to invest money in the zones, receiving substantial tax breaks in return. The county will use the funds to invest in local commercial projects, offering grants or loans to eligible entrepreneurs.
Horton added he deliberately concentrated on the heart of Portsmouth, along with the airport. He said state officials seemed to want him to set up a zone around the Norfolk-Southern Railroad tracks on the outskirts of the city. Horton admitted there is at least one large tract of land in that area ripe for redevelopment. However, he also added there are plenty of other incentives, including tax increment financing, in place to help with any development around the tracks. Minus the opportunity zones, that’s not the case in the center of Portsmouth.
Within the city, the targeted areas sit between Alexandria Point and Sciotoville. Horton thought it was important to note funds from the new zones, when they become operational, can be used to support smaller enterprises, such as retail or restaurants. According to Horton, the state has plenty of programs to help with large-scale manufacturing projects, but not so many to help with somewhat-less-flashy businesses. But in his opinion, the smaller, less-flashy businesses are just as important.
Horton talked about a scenario in which a major manufacturer sent a representative to scout out the area. In this tale, the person was impressed with the site available, with the access to freeways and so on. However, then the person took a drive into Portsmouth and discovered there was not a lot to see. In Horton’s story, that situation killed the deal. In his opinion, the area must have businesses and enterprises attractive to potential new workers and high-paid executives.
Since the program is still new, it is unclear when the city, the county or anyone else interested might be able to take advantage of the new zones. Horton promised he would keep the public advised on any developments.
Although Horton’s announcement regarding the enterprise zones proved to be the highlight of the latest SOPA meeting, the session also included the election of SOPA officers for 2018. Horton was re-elected chairman, while Mark Ward, assistant director of economic development for the county, was chosen as vice chairman.
In a bit of drama, Horton and Ward seemed extremely uncomfortable when SOPA board member Bob Cole resigned during the course of the meeting. Cole said he was upset about an email regarding a recording of a videoconference, a recording which has apparently appeared on social media. Cole claimed the email overstated his involvement with that videoconference, arguing his name never came up during that event. As the author of the email, Ward offered his hand in apology, but Cole chose to resign anyway.
“It’s an unfortunate misunderstanding,” Ward said later. Both he and Horton downplayed the incident, saying it belonged to the politics of the past. According to Horton, Cole was on the board as the head of a local pipefitters union. He said Cole may or may not be replaced on the SOPA board, adding that decision belongs to the county commissioners.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931