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Experts warn that tax program wonʼt magically make a bad deal good

L-R: James Nelson, Principal and Head of Tri-State Investment Sales, Avison Young; Louis Tuchman, Partner; Member, Executive Committee and Chair, Tax Department, Herrick Feinstein LLP; Dr. Marsha Gordon, CEO, Business Council of Westchester; Andrea Marais, Associate Dean of Strategic Marketing and Enrollment, Fordham University School of Professional and Continuing Studies; Robert Morgenstern, Director of Programs, Fordham Real Estate Institute

The Fordham Real Estate Institute (REI), The Business Council of Westchester (BCW) and Westchester County Government brought together real estate professionals and local officials to unpack the biggest trend to impact commercial real estate in years: Opportunity Zones.

The standing-room only event was hosted at 800 Westchester Avenue in Rye Brook and took a deep dive into what Opportunity Zones are and how the program impacts the County’s eight municipalities that house them.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer vowed to work with local municipalities to help them reap the biggest rewards possible from the federal program.

“We each have a responsibility to help make our County the best it can be. We are dedicated partners to our cities and towns, and it will take partners to make a better Westchester,” he said.

The program began with a presentation from co-keynotes James Nelson (Principal and Head of Tri-State Investment Sales, Avison Young) and Louis Tuchman (Partner; Member, Executive Committee; Chair, Tax Department; Herrick Feinstein LLP).

Nelson spoke about the benefits of Opportunity Zones for the real estate and the business community, and why he believes the program will greatly benefit Westchester County, while Tuchman focused on how the program works and ways investors can get involved.

“When you look at the cost of space per square foot in Westchester County compared to New York City, we believe it is a much more desirable market for investors looking to receive the tax benefits available from the Opportunity Zones program,” said Nelson.

Pravina Raghavan, Executive Vice President of Small Business & Technology Development at Empire State Development, then gave a special presentation about New York State’s perspectives on Opportunity Zones.

“The Opportunity Zone program is still in flux, and we’re still waiting on new regulations from the federal government,” said Raghavan. “With 514 zones throughout the State, we are dedicated to helping towns and cities make the most of the program.”

Following Raghavan’s presentation, two panels took place which focused on how the real estate industry and local municipalities viewed and participated in the Opportunity Zones program.

The first panel, “The Wizards of ‘OZ’,” featured: Timothy Oberweger, Esq., Vice President, Stewart Title (moderator); Sarah Jones-Maturo, President, RM Friedland; Brandon Lacoff, CEO, Belpointe REIT; Andreas Michaels, Vice President of Investor Relations, Halpern Real Estate Ventures; and Abe Schlisselfeld, CPA, EA, Co-Partner-in-Charge of Real Estate Group, Marks Paneth.

While the panelists discussed how their various industries participated and benefited from the program, they were quick to share that a property being built or renovated in an Opportunity Zone is not the only factor that will make it a success.

“An Opportunity Zone will not make a bad deal suddenly good,” said Lacoff, who shared that Belpointe REIT is the only public Opportunity Zone REIT in the country. “We’re focused on areas where there is job growth and where people want to move. If that’s not there, then we’re looking for the best value.”

In addition, Jones-Maturo shared eye-opening statistics on the number of real estate sales in Opportunity Zones in Westchester versus the Bronx, which highlighted that this was not as popular in the County as in nearby areas.

“In 2018, there were 20 multifamily sales in Westchester, with zero in Opportunity Zones. In comparison, there were 32 multifamily sales in the Bronx with nearly half of them (13) in Opportunity Zones. And six out of the 30 retail sales in Westchester were in Opportunity Zones in 2018 compared to nine out of 39 in the Bronx,” she said.

The second panel, “Shaping the Future of Westchester Cities and Towns,” featured: Joe Czajka, Senior Vice President for Research, Development & Community Planning and Executive Director of the Center for Housing Solutions and Urban Initiatives, Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress (moderator); Luiz Aragon, Commissioner of Development, New Rochelle; Marilyn Crawford, IDA President, Mount Vernon; Jean Friedman, AICP, Director of Planning, Peekskill; Carl Fulgenzi, Town Supervisor, Mount Pleasant; Christopher Gomez, Commissioner of Planning, White Plains; Wilson Kimball, Commissioner of Planning and Development, Yonkers; and Eric Zamft, AICP, Director of Planning and Economic Development, Port Chester.

The discussion began with each panelist sharing information on the Opportunity Zones in their municipality. Several speakers noted that the areas designated where not what they had expected. However, they all believed it would positively impact their communities.

“In New Rochelle, we have always set out to create certainty for investors,” said Aragon. “We are delighted to have Opportunity Zones in our community. Westchester is the right choice to live and work, and our County has a very bright future.”

The most prominent sentiment of the day was that Opportunity Zones are providing a positive spotlight on the County.

“Opportunity Zones have brought attention to our cities and towns and have put them back in the media,” said Kimball. “It helps us be on people’s minds and lets them know that Westchester is here to invest in.”

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