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The former U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry site, which is in an area proposed for the construction of a multi-use ballfield which was also selected for a federal Opportunity Zone program, is seen on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Multiple census tracts in Hamilton County were selected to participate in a federal Opportunity Zone economic development plan.

This is why people are so, so angry.

Why people stop voting.

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David Cook

Why people turn cynical, stop trusting local democracy and begin believing instead that decisions are made behind closed doors in patronizing and elitist ways.

This.

Is.

Why.

Earlier this year, area leaders were given a chance to spur millions upon millions of development dollars in funding for the most forgotten of neighborhoods. Places where dollar stores serve as grocery stores. Places where unemployment prowls. Places development has forgotten.

A federal program called Opportunity Zones allows county mayors to designate high-poverty areas, or zones, that if approved by the state and federal government would then reward investors by delaying, or even negating, taxes on capital gains from investments in those zones.

Put simply: I could build a new grocery store in your impoverished neighborhood and, long story short, not pay any taxes on the capital gains from that store.

In March, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger sent a ranked and prioritized list of 17 possible Opportunity Zones to Gov. Bill Haslam, who then approved Coppinger's top seven.

Just imagine if Coppinger's top choice had been East Chattanooga and the former Harriet Tubman development.

Or Alton Park.

Or neighborhoods along Dodds Avenue.

Or Clifton Hills, East Ridge or Ridgedale.

Imagine the monied attention that could heal those places.

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Opportunity Zone proposal

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But those places and others like it?

They didn't make the cut.

They were either ranked too low, or weren't ranked at all.

Instead, Coppinger's list — you won't believe his top choice — mostly ignored those neighborhoods, and instead prioritized seven places already soaked with investment potential.

Like M.L. King Boulevard near the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's campus. (His second pick.)

Or the old Alstom plant near the newly extended Tennessee Riverwalk. (His fourth pick).

Or South Broad Street and the old U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry. (Fifth pick.)

Coppinger's top pick? The Innovation District, right in the hot heart of downtown, surrounded by new parks and hip restaurants and suit-and-tie demographics.

The market is already alive and well in those places, each of which already possesses a gravity attracting hungry investors near and far. Coppinger's list is an inverted economic triage; he prioritized the places barely sick, and ignored the dying.

(Coppinger got help on his list from the Enterprise Center, a city-supported group that promotes innovation. Know where it's housed? In the heart of the Innovation District. The same place that's ranked first on Coppinger's list.)

The list was made using the 2010 census — all Opportunity Zones had to — which means Coppinger's data comes from eight long years ago.

Places poor in 2010 no longer are. Many of the standards used to select these Opportunity Zones are expired and out-of-date, which means this ranked list only will draw down more subsidized investment for places that don't need any.

Yes, Coppinger included forgotten places on his list.

But not in an urgent way.

Alton Park was ranked 15th.

East Chattanooga? Eighth.

Sale Creek? 17th, dead last.

"The list put forward by Chattanooga is essentially economic gerrymandering. This is economic development disguised as doing good. They chose locations that are part of the larger urban economic development strategy. Any benefits that accrue to existing low-income residents will be trickle down. The legislation rewards speculative investors, not local residents," said Dr. Ken Chilton of Tennessee State University and former head of Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

Consider the area around the old Alstom plant, which was fourth on the list.

Yes, College Hill Courts is there and in dire need.

But there's nothing within the Opportunity Zone system that requires investment in College Hill Courts. Hypothetically, an investor could build a high-rise condo near the old Alstom plant — technically within the zone — while completely ignoring College Hill Courts, and not have to pay a dime of capital gains taxes for doing so.

"It's a subsidy based on capital appreciation, not on employment or local services, and includes no provisions intended to retain local residents or promote inclusive housing," writes Adam Looney in his Brookings.edu article "Will Opportunity Zones help distressed residents or be a tax cut for gentrification?"

This prioritized (or lack of it) list suggests a significant disconnect between the planners and the actual people.

There is a certain hubris involved in ranking need, and I can't help but wonder who actually crafted the ultimate list that could involve millions of dollars and affect thousands of people.

Wouldn't such a decision need to be more just? More fair?

When Chattanooga continues to see an expanded gap between rich and poor, a growing discontent between people and planners, and a dream-deferred-rage coming from folks left out for far too long, don't wonder why.

This.

Is.

Why.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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