Designated Economic Opportunity Zones have the potential to be “huge” for rural and low-income areas in west-central Wisconsin.

That’s according to Barron County Economic Development Corp. director Dave Armstrong, who was one of just over 100 Chippewa Valley business and economic leaders — investors, developers, bankers, accountants, builders, property owners and others — who gathered Tuesday at the Pablo Center at the Confluence in downtown Eau Claire for a seminar to learn more about opportunity zones.

“It’s huge, really,” Armstrong said following the seminar, “especially when you look at other things that can be done with it. ... This is another great tool for rural areas.”

Former Gov. Scott Walker approved 120 opportunity zones across 40 counties in rural, urban and tribal areas in April in order to present an opportunity for private, tax-free investment into economically distressed communities over the next 10 years.

Nine of those 120 zones are located in west-central Wisconsin. Three of the nine zones are located in Eau Claire — in the central downtown business district, an area that encompasses the Randall Park neighborhood and the portion of Menomonie Street where the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex is planned, and the North Riverfront neighborhood along the east side of the Chippewa River plus an area along Madison and Birch streets.

Other regional zones include areas around Chippewa Falls, Menomonie, Rice Lake, River Falls and Ladysmith.

This brought forth the need for further education about and awareness of the program, said James Hanke, a business development representative at Market & Johnson.

The seminar, hosted by Market & Johnson, Wipfli and the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, included general information about opportunity zones, as well as where they’re located, who should invest, the proper way to invest and the tax advantages.

“It’s a unique program in my mind, as it’s a win-win,” Hanke said. “It’s a win for communities, seeing that redevelopment in areas that are underperforming or underserved, and it’s a win for investors. I like it a lot.”

Rusk County Economic Development Corp. director Andy Albarado said the session answered many of his questions and he’s excited to see what can come from the zones in his county.

“Out in the rural areas, we don’t have as much of an investor community in private development projects, so this is just another tool to drive some investment,” Albarado said. “I think everyone’s been in the same place — we’ve been sitting around and waiting to see what happens and how it works.”

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