City hosts revitalization roundtable
Officials from federal economic development agencies called a roundtable discussion Wednesday afternoon in Warren.
The meeting was not about particular projects. It was about how the agencies could help the city reach its goals and help people along the way.
Much of the discussion revolved around federal opportunity zones — economically distressed areas and communities that may be eligible for preferential tax treatment.
City Manager Nancy Freenock hosted the meeting in the council chambers. Warren County Commissioner Ben Kafferlin and representatives of Congressman Glenn Thompson, Rep. Kathy Rapp, and Sen. Scott Hutchinson attended, as did representatives from Warren General Hospital, Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, Hanes Hotel Development, and Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Regional Administrator Joe DeFelice introduced the HUD Opportunity Zone concept and spoke about many different funding streams that give bonus points to projects in the zones.
The city receives about $300,000 each year in HUD Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding. DeFelice said the city could receive a Section 108 loan based on five years of CDBG dollars for larger projects.
The city is already familiar with USDA Rural Development. Pennsylvania Director Curt Coccodrilli said rural development dollars were used on interceptors for the City of Warren Police Department.
“Where HUD leaves off, generally, rural development picks up,” Coccodrilli said. “The possibilities are here. It’s marketing the opportunity zone.”
Not all of the dollars are for businesses. He said there are dollars available for some homeowners for home repairs, including roof repairs, in opportunity zones.
“There are all kinds of programs,” Coccodrilli said. “Of the 47 programs, at any given time 40 of them are active. There’s a great chance we can do a heck of a lot more.”
DeFelice pointed to two websites — opportunityzones.gov and grants.gov — that can help officials find dollars for the projects they want and need.
“There are 27 federal grants right now that give preference points to those opportunity zones,” he said.
With COVID-19 causing havoc among small businesses in particular, the agency representatives had questions about the small business community in Warren and explained the services they offered.
“We’re here to figure out how your dreams can come to fruition,” Steve Bulger, Small Business Administration Region 2 Administrator, said. “SBA is here to support small business with capital access, training, things like that.”
Tom Rossomando of the SBA Office of Advocacy said his agency is not a source of grants. Instead, the agency works to help businesses that are suffering under “excessive, penalizing regulation… that prevent growth and hiring.”
“We get up every day fighting for small business,” Rossomando said.
There are dollars available for broadband projects, a dire need in the community, according to many of the local stakeholders in attendance. “It’s awful,” Northern Pennsylvania Regional College President Joe Nairn said when asked about the broadband situation. “We are critically underserved.”
There are dollars, but some rely on the willingness of providers to commit to large-scale infrastructure projects. “I feel the pain in the region,” Coccodrilli said. “Everywhere we go, the number one concern is connectivity.”
Some stakeholders also said the community is short on apartments and ‘low-maintenance’ housing.
Opportunity zone dollars could help fund turning vacant second-floor space above businesses into residential spaces, DeFelice said.
He also said the group assembled on Wednesday is very skilled at finding the right person within the right agency to meet specific requests.
“We’re here to help,” DeFelice said. “You have us at your disposal.”