Opportunity Alabama, the nation’s first nonprofit organization to create a marketplace for Opportunity Zone (OZ) investment in a state, has been named the best OZ organization in the U.S. for rural communities.
Forbes, in partnership with the Sorenson Impact Center, examined more than 100 OZ organizations around the country, judging them on the Opportunity Zone Reporting Framework, which prioritizes community benefit and engagement, transparency and impact. Forbes awarded Opportunity Alabama the grand prize Feb. 5, saying the organization is the best in its category of connecting OZ communities, investors and entrepreneurs, plus larger institutions like banks, universities and development organizations.
“The organization is building programs that educate communities on OZ policy and measure the social impact of projects across Alabama’s 158 OZ communities,” Forbes said. “Opportunity Alabama has also launched an OZ Fund to invest in projects statewide.”
Alex Flachsbart, founder and CEO of Opportunity Alabama, says the award is a big deal.
“This has been a nice moment to reflect on how far we’ve come,” Flachsbart said. “The $100 million worth of new investment we’ve already brought to the state, the 10 deals we’ve already gotten done, the 35 more in our pipeline. It’s fun to see all of the infrastructure we’ve built start to lead to some positive results for the state.”
Flachsbart says this award will help Opportunity Alabama recruit more local and national investors, which, in turn, will give the organization more capital to invest in shovel-ready projects, especially in rural areas.
“As we continue to leverage this national recognition to get more national funds, more national partners to the table and more local investors off the sidelines and into deals, I think that $1 billion of potential investment represented by the shovel-ready projects we already have is only going to grow,” Flachsbart said.
Flachsbart said a big focus area this year for the organization is how to continue to build capacity in rural areas.
“If we can’t make this program work in places like Selma, the Black Belt, the Wiregrass or the upper reaches of northeast Alabama, then what are we doing?” he said. “Working in 2020 on building more capacity so that, of those 300-plus projects we’re currently tracking, more of those get shovel-ready, more of those get their demand studies, more of those get a developer engaged to get that project to a point where it’s actually investable by local folks or by national folks, that’s where we are really excited about the trajectory we’re on right now.”
Flachsbart said the award shines a light on the people who wanted an effective Opportunity Zone strategy for Alabama.
“We exist because a handful of corporate organizations and foundations in Alabama said, ‘We need a cogent, coherent response strategy to opportunity zones,’ and they said it before really any other state in the U.S. started thinking about this question,” Flachsbart said. “Lead among them was the Alabama Power Foundation and the folks here at Alabama Power. The reason that we have Opportunity Alabama is because the folks at the Alabama Power Foundation were willing to incubate and seed a 501(c)3 to be this impact-oriented lens through which to view a program that otherwise doesn’t have an over-impactful orientation.”
The organization’s national recognition continued Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby announcing a $733,150 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) POWER grant. This grant will fund the Creating Opportunity for Alabama (COAL) Initiative.
“ARC’s decision to award this funding to Opportunity Alabama will help significantly boost private investment and business development throughout our state’s coal-impacted communities,” Shelby said. “I am proud this nonprofit initiative is working to help our local communities understand and capitalize on Opportunity Zones. These federal funds will facilitate an improved quality of life in Appalachian Alabama, creating hundreds of jobs and dozens of new businesses.”