Leslie Anderson is President & CEO of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority (NJRA), a multi-million dollar independent financing institution created by the state of NJ to transform economically distressed urban communities.
She is reportedly the only Black woman in the country that is leading an independent public financing institution. Under her leadership, NJRA has used its financial resources to leverage nearly $4 billion in new investments, helping to redevelop communities like Newark and Camden among many others.
How are opportunity zones selected?
In short, Opportunity Zones are selected based on need. The program is intended to increase investment in low-income urban and rural communities. In New Jersey, we’re placing a special focus on what we refer to as “Tier 2” cities, which are the smaller cities that have an even more difficult time attracting investment because investors often prefer larger and more high profile markets. Currently 75 municipalities, representing every county in New Jersey, have received at least one Opportunity Zone.
The specific formula that we used to select which neighborhoods are designated Opportunity Zones is based on key economic indicators, including income, unemployment rate, property values, geographic distribution, access to transit, and the value of existing investments including those encouraged by state programs and incentives. We also worked to ensure that local mayors and our Congressional delegation had a voice in the selection process.
What are your thoughts on the notion that Opportunity Zones contribute to gentrification of Black communities?
I certainly understand that concern as does Governor Phil Murphy and Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver. This is why we are creating an inclusive process that intentionally engages the communities that have been designated as Opportunity Zones.
We worked with the Governor’s Office and the Economic Development Authority (EDA) on a website and interactive mapping tool that creates a comprehensive resource for residents, local governments, and potential businesses and investors so there’s a level playing field and community organizations and residents are empowered with the access to information needed to make these decisions about their own communities. The Governor’s Office is holding a series of community forums in order to listen to the needs of each community and address concerns that may arise.
NJRA is also a crucial partner to the Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds, which allows us to identify designated redevelopment areas, and also ready-to-go projects. In this selection process, it is our goal that these new developments will be beneficial to all residents in a community.
A danger that we’ve identified currently in developing communities is that we’re seeing significant economic development in the downtown areas of our urban cities, but we’re not seeing the same progress in the neighborhoods outside of city centers.
NJRA has work hard to establish a legacy in the state of New Jersey of impacting and empowering local residents. Our core objective is to not only bring new investment, but to train the residents and community members in these areas to take charge of and leverage the change that’s occurring in their communities for their benefit.
What would you say is NJRA’s biggest success story?
I believe our biggest success story is the reputation we’ve established for being there first. Underserved urban communities face complex challenges, and NJRA is often the first entity to invest in vital redevelopment projects.
For this reason, the Authority adopted the tagline “we’re there first.” By investing first, NJRA communicates support and confidence to investors who may have overlooked a community. We often serve as the catalyst for private investment.
In 2014, we applied for and were awarded $20 million in New Market Tax Credits from the federal government, which allowed us to expand our reach and strengthen our impact.
This funding enabled the development of the Ray and Joan Kroc Center in Camden, a community and economic development project that provides health, education, training, and recreation services to low-income seniors, children, and families.
The Kroc Center serves 72 low-income children, 900 low-income residents at the health care center, and 1,000 households at the food pantry. Without the subsidy provided by our New Market Tax Credits this project would not have advanced.
What are some other NJRA programs that can spur economic growth in the Black community?
We have a number of exceptional programs designed to spur economic growth in Black and Latinx communities.
The Redevelopment Investment Fund (RIF): RIF provides flexible debt and equity financing for business and real estate ventures. Through RIF, NJRA offers direct loans, real estate equity, loan guarantees, and other forms of credit enhancements.
NJRA Bond Program: The Bond Program issues both taxable and tax-exempt bonds to stimulate revitalization in New Jersey’s urban areas. Bonds are issued at favorable interest rates to a broad range of qualified businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Urban Site Acquisition Program (NJUSA): In 1998, NJRA was provided with $25,000 to administer NJUSA, which is a revolving loan where funds are provided to facilitate the components of an urban redevelopment plan such as the acquisition, site preparation, or redevelopment of property. NJUSA also provides for-profit and nonprofit developers and municipalities with a form of bridge financing to acquire titles to property and other acquisition-related costs.
What type of projects would you most like to see in the communities you serve?
Currently, our number one goal is to ensure that the targeted low-income communities receive and fully benefit from the funding opportunities that will be generated by the Opportunity Zones. So we’ve been focused on identifying more high-impact redevelopment projects in these neighborhoods to ensure that the economic resurgences are reaching all residents.
To bolster our efforts, we’re also working on training municipal officials in these areas on the best practices for attracting redevelopment through our Redevelopment Training Institute.
What advice do you have for Black business owners and investors that are interested in economic development of their communities?
My advice for Black business owners and investors would be to take advantage of the variety of support services and resources that the public sector offers. There are financial incentives, public financing opportunities, and training programs that exist to help underserved business owners and investors. I already highlighted some of our financing programs.
Additionally, about 12 years ago, we created the Redevelopment Training Institute (RTI). It is a nationally recognized and regionally accredited training program that provides custom workshops on topics related to the complexities of the redevelopment process as well as the various financial incentives available to real estate developers and investors. Since inception, RTI has trained over 2,000 entrepreneurs, developers, nonprofits, attorneys, and elected officials.
Classes are offered regionally across the state of New Jersey, but can also be customized to your organization’s needs and delivered at your location. Participants from outside of New Jersey are also welcome. I encourage business owners and investors to sign up for RTI workshops. I invite those who are interested to visit www.njra.us/rti for more information.
-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson (IG @thebusyafrican)