WASHINGTON, D.C. - State Senator Dan Laughlin (R-49th District) and local economic leaders were among the nearly 200 attendees from 40 states at the first-ever White House Opportunity Zones Conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Laughlin, along with Matt Wachter of the Erie Downtown Development Corporation and Tim Wachter of Knox Law Public Strategies were invited by the Trump administration to attend the conference.

President Trump delivered remarks at the four-hour conference, reaching out to both critics fearing the program will gentrify neighborhoods, and to the 35 million Americans living in low-income communities now designated as Opportunity Zones.w

“Your government is 100 percent committed to bringing jobs and safety and opportunity back to where you live,” Trump said.

One of the communities Trump is referring to resides in the one of the poorest census tracts in all of Pennsylvania: the 16501 ZIP Code in downtown Erie. The census tract is one of eight Opportunity Zones in the city. At first glance, one might think that would deter the private investors these areas are supposed to attract. But Laughlin doesn’t see it that way. In fact, he’s embracing the stigma.

“I think we’re poised to take advantage of this,” Laughlin said. “We’re hopeful to make some connections down here to make that happen.”

Laughlin and officials from the Erie Downtown Development Corporation were among the 170 economic and political leaders from 40 states at the White House conference.

Since Opportunity Zones were approved last year after Congress passed the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act in 2017, the EDDC has purchased and started redeveloping more than 100,000 square feet of downtown Erie property with only private funding, according to the group’s Vice President for Finance and Development Matt Wachter. This time, they are targeting the federal government as an investor to fund projects in those zones that private dollars cannot.

“When there are private investment dollars, the public (sector) has to come in and match. These are things like our streets, our roads, our bridges, our sewer systems,” he said.

Those proactive steps are the main reason local leaders were invited to the White House, added Laughlin, who received the initial invitation. Now, they are hoping those efforts will translate into more federal funding back home.

“What we’re hoping to take away today is a good understanding of the programs that are available, to raise the profile even more of the City of Erie on the federal level,” Tim Wachter said.

It’s a profile that local leaders are putting on the map as the arms race for federal and state funding takes off.


This isn’t the EDDC’s first trip to Washington

In Dec. 2018, Wachter and EDDC Chief Executive Officer John Persinger met with members of Congress, including Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Scott, along with the Economic Innovation Group, were the primary architects of the plan.

The Erie Downtown Development Corporation was among the first organizations in the country to utilize Opportunity Zones earlier this year.

There are 8,700 Opportunity Zones in designated U.S. Census tracts across the country, meaning it’s likely not all of them will receive the necessary private investment to make them thrive.

Those zones are meant to encourage long-term development in low-income, high-poverty areas, and sort of work like this: investors pick the places and projects where they want to spend their money, and in return they get to defer their capital gains taxes through 2026, with certain strings attached.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf designated eight Opportunity Zones in the City of Erie with several in the E.D.D.C.’s corridor.