Mayor: national investors could address Casper food deserts, conference center needs - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Mayor: national investors could address Casper food deserts, conference center needs

Wyoming Food For Thought Project executive director Jamie Purcell gives Two Fly Foundation board member Kim DeVore a tour of the garden at Food For Thought’s main location in north Casper. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — North Casper and parts of Mills have been described as “food deserts.” The community lacks needed convention space, some say. Funding for future phases of the Midwest Avenue reconstruction project are lacking.

Casper Mayor Charlie Powell says that taking advantage of so-called “economic opportunity zones” could address needs like these in the community.

“I think the most important thing going on for us right now is the opportunity zones,” Powell told the Downtown Development Authority on Wednesday, Sept. 11.

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“Economic Opportunity Zones” are part of a tax incentive plan created by the 2017 Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and are meant to attract investment to low income areas.

The Casper area has four such zones, as the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance has explained:

  • “The census tract south of Hwy 20/26 to west of Poplar St. to north of W. Yellowstone Hwy and Poison Spider Rd. and east of Robertson Road.”
  • “The second tract is south of Yellowstone Hwy and Poison Spider Rd to east of Robertson Rd to north of the North Platte River.”
  • “The third zone touches the North Platte River on its north side, to the west of Poplar St, to north of CY Ave and east of SW Wyoming Blvd.”
  • “The fourth zone is the easternmost zone which includes Casper’s downtown area from east of Poplar St to south of the North Platte River to west of S Beverly St. and north of E Yellowstone Hwy and Collins Dr.”

Powell and others have said that the designation of the fourth zone listed above provides an especially unique opportunity for Casper.

Since the opportunity zones are based off of how United States Census tracts are drawn, Casper’s downtown area, which is in the same tract as North Casper, is in one.

“It’s not every opportunity zone that’s as attractive as our downtown,” CAEDA’s new director Justin Farley has said. “That’s an attractive piece of real estate that wouldn’t ordinarily make an opportunity zone.”

The idea behind opportunity zones is to attract investors to put their money into projects in these areas. Investing capital gains in the “Opportunity Funds” allows investors to defer paying capital gains taxes.

Charles Walsh, CAEDA’s previous director (who will be staying on until a large areospace and defence supply chain conference in Casper is complete) , says that opportunity zones could attract investors nationwide if Casper does a good job of identifying projects to elicit their interest.

“The facts are, once that tax law wasn’t even ink-dry, funds were starting to stand up nationally,” Walsh said this summer. “They’re looking for places to put it. Well, there are opportunity zones in large urban centers like Chicago. So we have to have a story that is better than other stories.”

Walsh added that some CAEDA members were invited to a conference in Jackson Hole several months back which was attended by 40-50 large funds. CAEDA identified four or five they’ll actively pursue, and have been working on how to attract those investors.

Powell says he’ll be traveling with CAEDA to Washington D.C. next week to learn more about the opportunity zones and talk to potential investors.

CAEDA aren’t the only ones thinking about economic opportunity zones. The topic came up in discussions to bring a new indoor sports facility to the Platte River Commons.

Powell says that opportunity zones could be used to address “food deserts” in North Casper and Mills.

Food deserts are areas where grocery stores and other means of accessing food are lacking.

Wyoming Food for Thought community gardens are some of the only neighborhood food options available in north Casper.

The Casper Housing Authority plans to make further inroads into addressing that problem. Plans for their new “Casper Housing Authority Campus,” include adding a commerical kitchen and implementing a United States Department of Agriculture approved summer feeding program.

Grocery stores are among the type of opportunity zone projects investors can put money into.

On Wednesday, Powell also mentioned the possibility of attracting investments to a new conference center project.

Cheyenne has plans to build the largest hotel and convention center in Wyoming, a project expected to finish in 2021. With Casper’s relative lack of such space, that could put the community at a greater disadvantage when it comes to attracting large events and business conferences.

While the City of Casper has secured some state funding for future phases of the Midwest Avenue reconstruction project, Powell says more is needed.

Powell says that these and other projects may benefit from opportunity zone investments “if we can position ourselves the right way.”