AUBURN — Officials in the Twin Cities are hoping a forum Friday can help connect regional stakeholders to federal resources, including the Opportunity Zones program created last year to spark investment in low-income communities.

Lewiston census tract 203, featuring Bates College, was chosen for the federal Opportunity Zones program. Lewiston officials would like it changed to tract 201, the mill district.

The event, dubbed a “federal resource forum,” will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday in the Kirk Hall Gymnasium at Central Maine Community College, 1250 Turner St. in Auburn.

According to Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, the forum was organized following a recent visit to Lewiston-Auburn by Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. While in the cities, Carson toured several HUD-funded programs with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and met with Levesque to discuss Opportunity Zones.

Levesque said the idea behind the event is to capture the unique challenges facing Lewiston-Auburn and to bring the “appropriate representatives from federal agencies into one area to help solve those problems.”

With space limited, organizers are hoping for a mix of government and elected officials, nonprofit organizations, the local chamber of commerce, and other regional stakeholders for a dialogue on what’s available for resources and investment incentives.

He said the connections could lead to economic development, revitalization of housing, and other issues facing the cities.

While the forum is meant to make connections with multiple federal programs, the marquee discussion will be the Opportunity Zones program, created last year as part of the $1.5 trillion tax cut bill passed by Republicans in 2017.

A map shows an opportunity zone in census tract 105 in New Auburn.

Opportunity Zones are defined as “economically distressed communities where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment.”

The program allows investors to create “opportunity funds” through which they can reinvest capital gains — profits from the sale of investments — into designated areas tax-free for up to 10 years, then get a 15 percent tax break on the initial investment.

The money could be put into commercial projects, startup companies and real estate.

Proponents believe the program will free up money from investors who are hesitant to cash out of investments because of capital gains taxes. However, critics worry the program will give tax breaks to investments in high-end real estate or other projects that don’t benefit poor neighborhoods, and that the administration is misusing the zones to give tax breaks to projects already in development.

Uncertainties still remain over the specific regulations that will govern the program because they are still being finalized.

Last week in Lewiston, Nelson Toner, a lawyer at Bernstein Shur, discussed Opportunity Zones during a Maine Real Estate & Development Association breakfast meeting at DaVinci’s Eatery.

“If you don’t invest in a Qualified Opportunity Fund correctly, the whole thing blows up,” Toner cautioned the audience of about 20 people. He added later, “For those of you who were math majors, this is going to be great.”

To help clear up any confusion over the complicated program, Friday’s event will feature a Q&A session by HUD representatives, followed by what Levesque described as a trade show-inspired forum with representatives from other government agencies.

“It’s such a new program that there’s still a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty out there in the business and development community on how to properly implement Opportunity Zone funds,” he said.

Instead of having to travel to regional offices in Boston or New York, local leaders will benefit from government agencies coming to them, he added.

Two similar forums have taken place elsewhere in New England, Levesque said, but not yet in Maine.

When the Opportunity Zones were announced last year by former Gov. Paul LePage, officials in Lewiston and Auburn were both excited and a bit surprised by the selections.

In Lewiston, the area selected differed from what city officials advocated.

Lewiston census tract 203, featuring Bates College, was chosen for the federal Opportunity Zones program. Lewiston officials would like it changed to tract 201, the mill district.

LePage chose Lewiston census tract 203, which includes Bates College, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and the Sabattus Street corridor. City officials had stumped for tract 201, the downtown area featuring mill buildings deemed ripe for reinvestment.

Lincoln Jeffers, director of economic and community development in Lewiston, said Tuesday he’s looking forward to the dialogue Friday, and he still hasn’t given up on census tract 201 getting the Opportunity Zone designation.

“We don’t want to be greedy,” he said. “We don’t want two or three census tracts, we just want our preferred census tract.”

He added that the rule-making process for the Opportunity Zones has also prioritized job creation, which he said would be much more likely in Lewiston’s mill district.

Auburn’s census tract 105 in New Auburn was chosen based on the New Auburn Village Center revitalization project already underway.

Levesque said Tuesday that the New Auburn Village project will create “shovel-ready” land, which he said is the best incentive for development within an Opportunity Zone.

A map shows an opportunity zone in census tract 105 in New Auburn.


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