‘A catalyst for hope’: Leaders discuss next steps for Bellefonte’s opportunity zone

Bellefonte’s “welcoming” and “engaged” citizens are the key to revitalize Centre County through local development and expansion projects, Scott Turner, the White House’s Opportunity and Revitalization Council executive director, said Monday.

Following a waterfront walking tour, Turner and U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, joined federal and local leaders at the Match Factory to participate in a roundtable discussion about Bellefonte’s opportunity zone. Bellefonte is one of four opportunity zones — economically-distressed areas where investments could be eligible for preferential tax treatment — in Centre County. The others are located in State College, Philipsburg and Rush Township.

“In Bellefonte, we heard about possibilities of looking at not just the waterfont ... but we talked about the downtown areas, the main street, the storefronts,” Thompson said. “We talked about the Academy, the Armory.”

Opportunity zones were added to the tax code by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017, and Thompson said that although the legislation came from the national level, the Opportunity and Revitalization Council wants to hear from local voices about each community’s needs.

“An opportunity zone is a catalyst for hope,” Thompson said. “That makes for a great partnership.”

Turner, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in April, said the council’s purpose is to create economic and community development. In order to learn about potential projects, Turner and other officials have been traveling in a community listening tour throughout the United States.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson holds a discussion on the Bellefonte Opportunity Zone with Scott Turner, executive director of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, on Monday, at the Match Factory in Bellefonte. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“We want to learn as much as we can ... and offer up suggestions of best practices that we’ve learned from around the country to share with the officials here in Bellefonte,” Turner said.

Opportunity zones aim to create “true transformation and revitalization” through job creation, housing, new businesses and by expanding existing businesses, Turner said.

“There’s a lot of potential for a mixed-use development,” Turner said, reflecting on the area where the Bush Hotel once stood.

He asked what struggles developers are facing “on the ground” inside the opportunity zone.

Tom Songer and Mark Morath, co-managing partners of the Bellefonte Waterfront Development Group, described their plan to create a boutique hotel, saying the biggest challenge was getting the property out of a flood zone. Now, Songer and Morath are working to finalize the plan, which includes the 75-room hotel, a restaurant and bar, parking area, condominiums and a space for commercial businesses.

Scott Turner, Executive Director of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, addresses the crowd about the Bellefonte Opportunity Zone on Monday at the Match Factory in Bellefonte. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Turner told the developers he liked the development plan and its incorporation of local resources. He encouraged Songer and Morath to take advantage of the opportunity fund to help finance the project.

“That’s how you’re going to attract either local investment or outside investment to help you in your development process and your construction process,” Turner said.

Developers said construction costs have increased over the years and asked officials how to work with rising rent and hotel prices in the surrounding area. Curt Coccodrilli, director of Pennsylvania’s USDA Rural Development, recommended they work with his office to find additional sources of funding for the project though the community and facilities funding program.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said Bellefonte thrives on economic development in “smaller packages,” but asked how development can be put into action in the coming months.

“There’s got to be a ... process that makes this a little bit easier that we can follow up later,” Benninghoff said.

Turner said he wants to bring people together in order to form a step-by-step process to make collaboration and communication easier through events like the roundtable. Although the Opportunity and Revitalization Council can assist with funding for projects, Turner said every community is different. In order for real change and development to occur, he said local officials, developers and community members must work together at the “grassroots level.”

“It’s a federal-facilitated deal, but it’s a locally-led and driven initiative,” Turner said. “Because you understand the community ... you know what the potential is here.”

Turner suggested local officials and developers collaborate in order to discover new opportunities and resources within Bellefonte and Centre County.

“When you do that, there might be people with resources here that you have not heard of yet,” Turner said. “... This is a way to come together.”

U.S. Representative Glenn Thompson holds a discussion on the Bellefonte Opportunity Zone on Monday at the Match Factory in Bellefonte. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Thompson suggested community members utilize local representatives and take advantage of grant programs. Thompson said he will convene with government officials to look at permitting and any limitations future projects may encounter in the future.

“We kind of serve as air traffic controllers,” Thompson said. “We’re not going to fly your plane, but we’re going to make sure you know where to connect with communications.”