Michael Hough, Garrett County’s economic development director, was the guest speaker at Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Greater Oakland Business Association.
He was introduced by GOBA President Fred Gregg.
“The road to a new economic development director was a long and rocky one, to say the least,” Gregg said. “But if you believe in the saying, like I do, that good things come to those who wait, I think we have a very great one in Mr. Hough, so our wait was rewarded, and we’re very happy with what he’s doing and what his plans are to take us down the road.”
Hough spoke about opportunities through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which provides for the creation of “opportunity zones.” These are specially created geographic districts that allow investors to receive substantial tax breaks for investment capital.
Investors must invest through newly created “opportunity funds” that purchase and improve real estate or businesses.
Hough presented a map of Garrett County indicating three opportunity zones, including the entire town of Oakland.
“If you invest in an opportunity, you can defer your capital gains,” he explained. “If you keep that property for seven years, capital gains will decrease by 15 percent.”
In addition, Hough explained that holding the property for 10 years will result in the profit being 100-percent tax free.
“If you’re going to invest in Garrett County, you really need to look at these opportunity zones,” he said.
He said he is currently working on making people aware that this opportunity exists.
“It doesn’t mean that you need to act today and buy that property; you just have to have the fund set up,” he said. “It’s going to take a partnership to move things along. It’s a great little town, and it needs to be successful.”
Hough said one thing that surprised him in his new position after working in the private sector for 30 years was that he underestimated how transparent government has to be. He also stated that he has a “tremendous staff” who are “the experts” in the job.
An update was given from the Economic Vitality Committee, which has been working on trying to upgrade the availability of high-speed internet to the downtown.
“It’s been quite honestly ... a frustrating venture,” Gregg said. “It seems like every time we think we’re making some headway, we hit headlong into a brick wall that we just can’t get around. So we’re to a point now where we think we’re at a crossroads where we need to make a decision as to what we want to do and how we want to do that.”
Gregg said the committee enlisted the help of Cheryl DeBerry and Nathaniel Watkins from the county.
DeBerry reported that she worked on the Rural Broadband Expansion Project, which received Appalachian Regional Commission funds several years ago. That project is currently using fixed wireless.
“We finished up spending all of the ARC money at the end of September,” DeBerry said. “We got 600 people in the county connected and the project seems to be going well. We’re at a point now where we’re trying to decide what else we can do to help folks.”
ARC money is still available for broadband purposes. One possibility DeBerry mentioned is beefing up the internet in the downtown area.
“The next step is to figure out what do we have and what do we need specifically for the businesses that are here now,” DeBerry said.
A survey will be given to Oakland businesses to help determine what the needs are. This information will be included in grant applications to ask for money to help current providers expand their services or expand their capacity.
Watkins said it would be nice to be able to invite businesses to Oakland and eventually maybe all the municipalities and be able to provide excellent broadband.
“I think that’s a big factor for businesses and its going to continue to be that way,” he said.
Gregg displayed a welcome basket and outlined plans to present these baskets to people who buy homes in Oakland for the first time.
The baskets will contain useful information about the town and also introduce them to services and businesses that may be needed.
GOBA businesses are asked to contribute either a discount coupon or a gift certificate for the baskets.
“This is the first step in a bigger initiative to try to market Oakland as a place to live,” Gregg said. “We have incentives to show that we are welcoming to businesses. Now we need to take the other half of that equation and target residents.”