WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- A federal law implemented in 2018 is meant to help poor communities revitalize their areas and make them more attractive to investors. Opportunity zones were designated by state governors at the direction of Congress, that allow private developers to get a federal tax break for building business, redevelopment, or housing to those zones.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) authored the law and is now introducing a new bill that would create accountability for both the federal government, state task forces that designated the zones, and the developers who benefit.
"Part of the original legislation included reporting requirements, transparency data collection to make sure that it's working the way it was intended," Kind said. "But the way it was added at the last minute, the republican tax bill, all those items were stripped down. We're trying to restore the original intent of the legislation by letting the sunshine in so we know what's being invested in and where and why."
In north central Wisconsin, there are opportunity zones in Eagle River, Lac du Flambeau, Rhinelander, Antigo, Merrill, Wausau, Shawano, Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids, Stevens Point, Port Edwards, and Nekoosa.
"Here in Wausau we have two designated zones that basically encompasses most of downtown and a wide swath of the city between Bridge and Stewart out to 17th Avenue," Chris Schock, Wausau's development director said.
He said that area includes the Wausau Center Mall, which is now owned by the Wausau Opportunity Zone Fund Inc. It is a group made up of local non-profits.
"The city and the local foundations are working to acquire the mall and I could see that being a potential option for future opportunity zone investors," he said.
However, Schock explained that because opportunity zones come from a federal program, municipalities do not have a say on who or what project gets the break or how the project is structured.
"You could say, 'well, wouldn't the community want to be sure that the project receiving the incentive is tailored towards the community's needs or other things?' You could argue for that," Schock said, "it's just that's not what this legislation is tailored to do. But we have our own incentives at the local level, which we utilize to ensure that we get projects that are strategic for the city."
He said some developers in the area already working with the city have looked to potentially utilize the opportunity funds. However, in the year and a half the tax break has been around, he is only aware of one company so far that is looking at developing in central Wisconsin because of the opportunity zone incentive.
Developers have until 2028 to invest in opportunity zones and almost two more decades after that to claim the tax benefits.