Opportunity Zones only work if everyone gets the same shot an opportunity | Opinion

(Image via Flickr Commons)

By Kenneth Gormley

On Nov. 1, Duquesne University hosted the Opportunity Zone Association of America (OZAA) conference. We were thrilled to host this prominent group, and we greatly value their work as they create rich opportunities for people in regions like ours.

The attendees met in Duquesne’s Power Center, which overlooks the city with dramatically different views. This location provided OZAA members a clear view of what can happen when parts of communities are left behind.

At one corner of the conference room, the perspective is of downtown Pittsburgh’s thriving commercial district, rightly a source of pride.

At the other corner, attendees look to the Hill District, a community just as complex and ripe with possibility as any other. But it is one that has been repeatedly left behind by past planners, businesses and others.

The difference in these two views is a clear illustration for those who point to Pittsburgh’s “renaissance” that this metaphor only works for some.

According to The Pittsburgh Foundation, about one-third of the Pittsburgh region’s population lives at or near the poverty line. And for those in tough economic straits who live in opportunity zones, too often they do not see direct benefits from investments made in their communities.

Trump slams Dems, pitches nat gas future during Pittsburgh visit 

Working at Duquesne for the past 25 years, I’ve had the chance to witness and participate in initiatives that have created mutually rewarding partnerships with our neighbors, especially in Uptown. We’re fortunate that other anchor institutions here — businesses, nonprofits and other universities —continue to invest in such initiatives.

Yet, we aren’t doing enough. With access to vast and varied data, we know more about our communities than ever before. However, we must respond to needs uncovered by that data with the same urgency as we respond to financial opportunities.

Anchor institutions can take meaningful actions in opportunity zones that aren’t necessarily big and complicated. For instance, on Aug. 17, three buildings near DeRaud Street in the Hill District were condemned by a fire, leaving 17 families displaced.

Affordable housing project in Philly’s Hunting Park wins $700K in state funding

These properties are located within the EcoInnovation District, for which Duquesne is a lead convener. So, we acted swiftly. Duquesne’s Office of Community Engagement worked with Rep. Jake Wheatley, Councilman Daniel Lavelle, County Councilman Dewitt Walton, Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh and other organizations.

Duquesne also accepted and distributed donated funds during that crisis, purchasing emergency clothing and personal items, paying for hotel rooms and food while permanent accommodations were secured for those families. Other Uptown anchors helped as well: the McAuley Ministries Foundation, the University of Pittsburgh, Neighborhood Allies and Suzanne Mellon, president of Carlow University, all provided grants.

While most victims of this tragedy have started to move on, the difficulty of getting these families into affordable housing underscored another recurrent issue.

Right now, Pittsburgh needs 20,000 more units of safe, affordable housing. That presents an enormous possibility for collective investment within opportunity zones.

Opportunities are much more than financial in nature. Even as we look for jobs, investment, infrastructure and other economic drivers to support growth and stability, we also must use “zones” to tighten alliances, be ready to serve and work on community building.

As organizations move into communities, regardless of well-meaning intent, their arrival is inevitably disruptive. Although the attachment residents have to their communities may be complicated, and fraught with hardships, they still view these communities as home.

As OZAA members met on Duquesne’s campus, I trust they listened to one another and rededicated themselves to listening in the communities where they work. For opportunity zones to be true to their salutary names, they must create opportunity for more than just developers, investors and public officials. They must create opportunity for all members of the community.

Kenneth Gormley is president of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He wrote this piece for the Pittsburgh Business Times, where it first appeared. It is reproduced with the permission of Duquesne University.