Acadiana Planning Commission: Using Opportunity Zones to Support Rural Wealth Creation

The Cajun Woodstock festival benefitting St. Jude Children’s Hospital was identified in the Invest Church Point prospectus as a form of cultural capital for the community of 4,500 residents (Photo credit: Invest Church Point prospectus)

Following the creation of Opportunity Zones in 2017, the Acadiana Planning Commission (APC), located in Lafayette, Louisiana, moved quickly to position its seven-parish region for investment through the new tax-based incentive intended to support distressed communities.  APC partnered with One Acadiana, the regional chamber of commerce, to create Invest Acadiana, an initiative and accompanying web portal to promote investment in the 25 Opportunity Zones (OZs) across the region.  Through this initiative, detailed and informative prospectuses for both the city of Lafayette and the entire region were published and in time Invest Acadiana became a model for how small metro and rural regions could leverage Opportunity Zones to encourage economic development.  The regional partners also gained national attention for their efforts and were recognized by Forbes in December 2019 as one of the “Top 20 Opportunity Zones catalysts” in the country.

Inspired by this initial success and recognition, staff at APC continued to explore ways to use Opportunity Zones to encourage a new way of thinking about economic development, particularly in small towns throughout the region.  Says Monique Boulet, APC executive director, “What Opportunity Zones have done is open the conversation in our communities about the possibilities and how to reinvest and reinvigorate by looking at assets in places that may not recognize them.”

Exploring WealthWorks and Multiple Forms of Capital 

It was that focus on lifting up community assets that led the APC team to explore the WealthWorks framework.  WealthWorks is an asset-based approach to economic development that builds value chains, leverages multiple forms of wealth (or capital), and is rooted in local control and inclusivity.  For their OZ initiative, APC was particularly interested in ways rural communities and small towns could explore and highlight the various types of capital that exist locally.  WealthWorks does this by focusing on eight forms of capital: built, financial, individual, intellectual, natural, political, social, and cultural.  Wealth creation activities seek to build more than one type of community capital without harming other assets in the process.  This framework creates the space and vocabulary for communities to take a holistic look at their wealth and showcase their people, places, and environment.

WealthWorks encourages communities and regions to lift up 8 forms of capital or wealth as part of its inclusive  approach to economic development

In preparation for taking a wealth creation approach, APC staff reached out to colleagues at the Region Five Development Commission, located in Staples, Minnesota.  Serving five rural counties, Region Five has embraced WealthWorks since 2014 and has infused this approach into all aspects of its mission, including project delivery, regional initiatives, partnerships, and much more.  Over phone calls and video conferencing, staff at Region Five shared their knowledge and expertise to train APC in using a wealth creation model for their rural OZ outreach.

Chad LaComb, economic development planner at APC, said his team was drawn to the WealthWorks model because it flipped the script on the traditional narrative about struggling small communities and created a language that allowed communities to better express all they had to offer.  “We noticed that a lot of the statistics we were using to promote the Opportunity Zones were often perceived as negative for the communities.  The inherent nature of the OZs is to address distressed areas so we were discussing things like high poverty and high unemployment.”

Creating Community Prospectuses as “Real Marketing Tools”

Located in Acadiana Parish, the Town of Church Point is one of the small communities that worked with APC to create a community prospectus.

With two Delta Regional Authority (DRA) grants and support from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) for a VISTA staffer, over the course of a year three APC staff researched, wrote, and promoted seven prospectuses for rural communities and small towns across the region that highlight the multiple forms of wealth and assets that exist in their communities.  More than 20 stakeholder meetings and focus groups were held – both in-person (prior to the pandemic) and virtually through Zoom – to conduct asset-mapping exercises, identify case studies and projects to highlight, and compile data.  The result was the creation of highly accessible and visually-engaging prospectuses that Boulet calls “real marketing tools” for small communities to showcase their assets and amenities.

The Town of Church Point is one of the small communities that worked with APC to create a prospectus.  Located in Acadiana Parish, Church Point is home to around 4,500 residents, has a poverty rate hovering around 34%, and a median household income of around $31,000.  By these metrics alone, Church Point appears to be an unlikely candidate for investment, let alone having a 45-page document that highlights community assets and wealth.  Yet the Invest Church Point prospectus does just that and is a powerful example of how using the WealthWorks framework and documenting multiple forms of wealth can change the conversation from one about what is lacking in a place to what opportunities exist, oftentimes in plain sight.

The prospectus is packed with images, infographics, and maps and opens with a brief profile of Church Point and definitions of each of the eight capitals.  The bedrock of the document are the in-depth descriptions of how the capitals exist in Church Point.  For example, the “Built Capital” section highlights the Church Point Cultural District, including a structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as bed and breakfast accommodations and RV parks, and transportation, infrastructure, and utilities information.  The “Cultural Capital” section features the various festivals held in Church Point, such as Cajun Woodstock fundraiser every April and the Courir de Mardi Gras held the Sunday before Mardi Gras.  Each of the eight capitals is covered featuring metrics, projects, and case study profiles.

The prospectus concludes with an overview of Opportunity Zones, including an explanation of how they work, the benefits they can deliver to communities, and a list of federal, state, and local incentives that can be leveraged to support the process.  All prospectuses follow a similar template, making each of them a one stop guide for how the Opportunity Zones incentive can apply to each particular community and what assets and capitals exist locally.

Screenshots from the Invest Church Point prospectus highlighting examples of cultural and built capital in the community, as well as catalytic investment opportunities.

Positioning Communities and the Region for Success 

APC staff view the OZ initiative as a way to enhance and elevate the mission of the organization in promoting economic and community development across the region.  This includes supporting the wider vision identified in the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, a five-year economic development roadmap.  “The CEDS serves as the baseline document for this work,” says LaComb.  “The prospectuses and OZ initiative are facilitating the goals and objectives in the CEDS.”  The development of these community prospectuses also meets updated CEDS content recommendations from EDA announced in January 2020 for how communities can further promote the economic attractiveness of their region by emphasizing Opportunity Zones as key investment-ready locations.  The inherently regional focus of the CEDS provides a unique platform to capture and promote the advantages of Opportunity Zone communities.

One of the communities with a new OZ prospectus that is poised to receive new investment is New Iberia, located about twenty minutes from Lafayette.  In February 2021, the U.S. Economic Development Administration announced $3.1 million to construct a 47-mile long fiber optic line that will deliver high-speed service to businesses, government offices, a new emergency operations centers, behavioral health clinic, and local residences in New Iberia, Lafayette, and Scott.  The project will generate around $26 million in private investment for the region.  This fiber line will better position New Iberia and others for investment – and it also will add a new form of “built capital” the community can leverage.

Achieving any long-term success will require continued collaboration across the region, said both Boulet and LaComb.  The nature of Opportunity Zones as a tax incentive to drive redevelopment has brought new personalities and institutions to the table as well as deepened partnerships already in place with state and federal agencies, chambers of commerce, and other public and private organizations.  With these new prospectuses, APC has put a valuable resource in the hands of local leaders, allowing communities to move beyond a dated model of economic development and truly imagine the possibilities for the future.

This case study was developed as part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Stronger CEDS, Stronger Regions program, funded through a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration,U.S. Department of Commerce.  The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.  Contact Brett Schwartz at [email protected] with any questions.

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.

McKinney has provided congressional testimony on numerous occasions regarding the importance of regional development organizations in helping shape the nation’s economic growth. He is nationally recognized for promoting innovative solutions in areas such as planning and economic development, workforce development, transportation and transit, and aging services.

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