How Opportunity Zones Connects Missoula’s Mayor Engen to Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher

by William Skink

This past week I took a critical look at gentrification in Missoula, and today will be no different. The ever-reliable cheerleader of development, the Missoula Current, is “reporting” on the celebratory ground breaking of the first new building on West Broadway to take advantage of the TOZ (Trump Opportunity Zone). From the link: 

Two weeks after announcing its plans to break ground on a $5.8 million office building and restaurant in Missoula’s new opportunity zone on West Broadway, the firm behind the project will celebrate with a ground breaking on Monday.

Broadway Opportunity Fund plans to construct the building on 1.5 acres at 2000 Maple Street to serve as the future home of DJ&A. The larger 6.5-acre parcel was purchased by Engineer Support Services LLC in 2017 and also is expected to be redeveloped.

“Our community’s planning, programs and public investment help give confidence to companies like DJ&A who are investing in redeveloping the West Broadway corridor,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said in a statement. “In doing so, (they’re) creating jobs and opportunities and prosperity in our community.”

Yeah, opportunities and prosperity, but for who?

Cheerleaders of development gloss over the history of these zones and the people who often lose out because of them. 

In the lefty political journal, Counterpunch, Amadi Anene provides some historical context and links to reports about these opportunity zones. Anene once served as a senior adviser in the Small Business Administration during the Obama administration, so maybe he’s someone the supposed liberal/progressives in Missoula will listen to? 

This story goes back to the 1980s, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government introduced 11 “enterprise zones” throughout the United Kingdom. Inspired, conservatives in the U.S. under President Ronald Reagan promoted the creation of these zones in 40 states.

Even many Democrats warmed to these zones as a viable pro-market approach to urban renewal. The idea resurfaced as “empowerment zones” under the Clinton administration in 1994.

Whatever you call them, they’re spaces where businesses can delay, reduce, or even eliminate taxes altogether on the money they invest.

From Thatcher to Reagan to Clinton to Trump, the concept that became the gentrifying TOZ has had some PR name tweaks, but retained the stench of a tax-avoidance scheme, which is clear to see once you look past the language the cheerleaders use to promote these “opportunities”.

Later in the article Anene addresses the argument of the cheerleaders, which he calls “advocates”:

Advocates argue that these incentives encourage investors to direct money into distressed communities in ways that will lead to new jobs, better housing, and other businesses being willing to open up shop in the revitalized community.

There are at least two problems with that argument.

First, many distressed communities suffer from economic challenges that investment alone cannot address, including redlining and housing discrimination. These communities need systemic policy changes that get at the root of discrimination to set the stage for lasting economic change.

Second, studies across the country (as well as in the U.K.) offer little evidence that such incentives actually benefit neighborhoods in the long run.

An expansive study of 75 enterprise zones in 13 U.S. states concluded that tax incentives had “little to no impact on economic growth.” One study of a zone in New Jersey even concluded that increased economic activity within its zone came at the expense of non-zones in the nearby area — the kind of zero-sum economics that would discourage investments in the long run.

A serious lack of evidence that these zones produce the desired economic impact won’t stop a duplicitous politician like Mayor Engen from parroting the same tired rationalizations of supposed opportunity and prosperity.

If people in Missoula want to understand the changes that are happening, then identifying and understanding the mechanisms of gentrification is one important step to take.

But you won’t understand if the only info you are getting is coming from cheerleaders like Engen.

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About William Skink

I'm a poet and political cynic living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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1 Response to How Opportunity Zones Connects Missoula’s Mayor Engen to Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher

  1. Big Swede says:

    Mizzoo definitely needs more representatives like councilwomen CdeBaca from Denver.

    Like

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