Grand Junction may be in as good a position as any place to take advantage of its newly designated "opportunity zones."
The zones were tucked away in the federal tax reform bill that passed in December 2017 in a provision that sought to help spur investment in underserved areas where at least 20 percent of the population lived in poverty. The program allows investors to defer capital gains taxes if they reinvest profits or real estate sales into these zones. The taxes can be waived after 10 years.
After an application process, the U.S Treasury Department designated six tracts in the Grand Junction area as opportunity zones, with one more in Mesa County near Collbran and the community of Mesa.
Some experts say these zones could be some of the first in the country to see investment because of work that has already taken place locally prior to the announcement of these tracts.
"I think Grand Junction is ahead of the curve because of the work they've done in the past," said Bruce Katz, an urban planner and co-founder of New Localism Advisors, a Philadelphia-based firm that helps cities promote inclusive and sustainable growth.
Some of Grand Junction's zones include locations such as Las Colonias Park, the former Jarvis property west of downtown that is now called Dos Rios, the area around 24 Road surrounding Community Hospital and much of the downtown area.
"We kind of won the lottery as far as areas in opportunity zones," Business Incubator Executive Director Jon Maraschin said.
Maraschin was one of about 20 stakeholders and organizational leaders from Grand Junction who joined others from around the state at a Denver conference last month to discuss opportunity zones and learn how to maximize the area. During the conference, Grand Junction was used as a case study for the zones in a session where Katz was a guest speaker.
"We're looking for cities who want to raise their hand and take action. Grand Junction clearly fits the bill," said Katz, who also served as chief of staff for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros in the Clinton administration.
How Grand Junction got here
Katz laid out a few reasons he felt Mesa County was poised to succeed regarding opportunity zones. One was the collaboration between organizations such as the city of Grand Junction, Mesa County, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership and Colorado Mesa University.
Another was the ability to leverage private investment through public spending with projects such as the Business Park at Las Colonias.
Both of these were stressed in the 2015 North Star report, a document that provided an assessment of the community's assets and image and recommendations on how to move forward.
"When organizations work cooperatively from an agreed-upon strategy, the end result is far more cost-effective, memorable and powerful," the report said.
Local officials look at this as a turning point for the community's leadership.
"North Star gave us focus points," Grand Junction Mayor Barbara Traylor Smith said. "Now we have a focus and we can see we are all pushing the rock up the same hill."
City Manager Greg Caton agreed and stressed the importance of using public dollars to spur private investment in future developments, which he is glad to see already occurring in Grand Junction.
"Both sides, public and private, are pushing the envelope," he said.
Katz said it was apparent the Grand Junction team was moving in the same direction together and knew what the community had to offer.
"I thought the Grand Junction team was very cognizant of their assets," he said.
Leading the pack
Grand Junction could see investment in some of its opportunity zones by the fall, permitting that some guidelines are finalized within the federal government.
Maraschin believes there are already multiple investors lined up ready to start work once the guidelines are set.
Meanwhile, GJEP is leading the way on a prospectus — a strategic plan for moving each zone forward and pointing out potential assets for investors — for Mesa County, which could serve as a template for other parts of the state.
"Mesa County is going to lead the way and show them how to do things," Maraschin said. "It's awesome."
GJEP Executive Director Robin Brown said she hopes the valley can serve as a national example and is looking forward to see what comes of these opportunity zones.
"It's exciting to see where we can go from here," she said. We will see continued growth and prosperity."