Politics & Government

Here’s what Mike Pence had to say about Tim Scott, SC’s Opportunity Zone Project

Mike Pence visits Columbia, SC opportunity zone

Vice President Mike Pence and SC Senator Tim Scott visited an opportunity zone in Columbia on February 21, 2019.
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Vice President Mike Pence and SC Senator Tim Scott visited an opportunity zone in Columbia on February 21, 2019.
Vice President Mike Pence — wearing a red South Carolina-themed tie, with elements of the state flag — toured a newly reopened Columbia movie theater Thursday, touting the project as an example of a successful investment in an “Opportunity Zone.”

Pence was in Columbia at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, the Charleston Republican who authored the “Opportunity Zone” portion of the 2017 tax reform bill, designed to encourage investment in low-income areas.

The newly reopened theater is a project of Meeting Place Church of Greater Columbia, which opened a banquet and conference center next door.

Scott, Pence and second lady Karen Pence received a private performance from a small group of gospel singers as they toured the banquet and conference center, and visited with church and community members.

“Thank y’all for that. What a blessing,” Scott told the small choir.

The trio also participated in a roundtable of business leaders. Reporters were ushered out after Pence and Scott made brief remarks. Among the business leaders present were representatives of Boeing, AT&T, Philadelphia Trust, and S.C. development and financial firms.

Meeting Place Church and Spotlight Cinemas remodeled and reopened the former Capital 8 cinema earlier this year. The project was helped, in part, by tax breaks in the 2017 federal tax bill. It is located in an Opportunity Zone on the church’s 23-acre strip-mall site, near Columbia Place Mall.

Pence applauded the “extraordinary entrepreneurial energy” displayed by the church and its members in renovating a strip mall that had sat vacant for more than a decade.

“You are transforming this community,” Pence told the audience. “It’s a magnet for more investment in this area, bringing people into the community and bringing new businesses into the community, and rebuilding it bigger and better than ever before.”

Pence told Scott “this community, this state and this nation are in your debt” for championing the anti-poverty initiative. He added, “I was for Tim Scott before it was cool,” referring to their respective careers in the U.S. House.

“It’s all about making sure as the national economy expands, it’s going to expand for every American,” Pence said.

Bishop Eric J. Freeman said the property “was declared dead” when the church purchased it in 2016.

“We began to breathe life into this community because we believed there was opportunity here,” Freeman said, leading to a $2 million renovation of the eight-screen movie complex. “With opportunity zones ... we are able to sharpen our pencils and see a means ... to make the story of resurrection ... real.”

Scott, who grew up in poverty in a single-parent household in North Charleston “mired in poverty,” has traveled the country on an “Opportunity Tour” to highlight his anti-poverty initiative.

He said Opportunity Zones provide “an olive branch of hope,” based on “the notion that everyone in every place at any time should be blessed with opportunities.”

Pence’s trip is the latest overture from the White House in support of the development initiative.

Late last year, President Donald Trump announced the creation of a new “Opportunity and Revitalization Council” to direct federal resources to bolster Opportunity Zones.

The tax incentive is designed to encourage long-term private investments in communities left behind during the recent national economic expansion. The zones allow investors to put money in low-income rural and urban areas, starved for economic activity, and defer taxes on any capital gains for up to 10 years.

Proponents say the zones could spur development of affordable housing, and support new and expanded business and retail development in under-served areas.

Critics worry the tax breaks will benefit wealthy real estate developers, and caution new investments could hasten gentrification in some communities, displacing poor residents in up-and-coming areas.

Republicans are battling perceptions the program is a hastily conceived handout to the rich, following reports that Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, has investments in designated Opportunity Zones.

The Treasury Department is still in the process of writing regulations that will govern parts of the program.

GOP and business leaders have praised the initiative for giving state and local leaders, and the private sector greater control over how best to utilize the tax breaks, rather than handing down dictates from Washington.

Democrats, too, support Opportunity Zones, including Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker, a U.S. senator from New Jersey.

“No citizen will be forgotten. No community will be ignored,” Pence said, quoting Trump. “No American will be left on the sidelines. We must unlock the potential of all our people, not just some of our people. And that’s what Opportunity Zones are doing right here in Columbia.”

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.