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Govt-and-politics
Federal tax law allows Racine to incentive investors Downtown

RACINE — The city is shifting its approach to redevelopment to target specific areas, including Downtown Racine.

It’s doing it with the help of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which is allowing the city to create “opportunity zones” to provide incentives for investors.

Community Development Director Amy Connolly said her department is shifting its approach to concentrate on the areas that have the greatest need.

“The city’s model for a long time has been that we’re going to try to spread the work that we’re doing throughout the city to make sure that we’re hitting all the neighborhoods,” said Connolly. “But that model hasn’t been shown to work very effectively.”

Connolly gave an example of a hypothetical city block with several dilapidated houses.

“(If) you only address two houses on the block then you’ve done nothing to address the problem,” she said. “You’ve really got to get at all the houses on the block, and you’ve got to drive investment on the whole block, or else nobody on that block truly benefits from that investment.”

Mapping the need

The Community Development Department has spent the past year merging Census data on income, education attainment, home ownership and poverty rates with local data on building code violations, police and fire calls and tax delinquency. By laying out all that information of a map of the city, her department is able to zero in on the areas where the most help is needed.

“One of our focuses is in using data to help us drive the delivery of services,” said Connolly. “So we spend a lot of time looking at data in various neighborhoods.”

If there’s a concentration of tax-delinquent properties, the area could be targeted for redevelopment via the land banking program, where the county forecloses on property and turns it over to the city, which then turns it over to an entity for redevelopment.

City puts new emphasis on neighborhoods

RACINE — Changing the name of the city’s Housing and Community Development division to Neighborhood Services isn’t cosmetic, said City Development Director Amy Connolly.

The city also has used this data to designate Opportunity Zones that could drive investment into the areas that need it the most.

Opportunity zones for investment

Opportunity Zones are Census tracts where investors who reinvest capital gains can get a reduction in their capital gains tax.

According to a brief by the Congressional Research Service, the tax benefits kick in if the taxpayer holds onto the asset for at least five years; at 10 years they could qualify to completely write off any capital gains tax on the investment when sold.

In early 2018, shortly after the tax bill passed, Gov. Scott Walker’s office asked communities to identify their most severely distressed Census tracts and submit proposals to create opportunity zones within those tracts.

“We were probably one of the first ones out of the gate,” said Connolly.

Her office identified 10 distressed Census tracts within the city. Later, the governor’s office decided that for a community of Racine’s size they could only designate three tracts for opportunity zones.

The city chose tract number 1, which is Downtown Racine; tract number 4, the area just north of Downtown; and tract number 5, which is just west of the railroad tracks from Hamilton Street to just south of 16th Street and includes Uptown.

Those Opportunity Zones were designated in February. Connolly believes they may have been a factor in some investors’ decisions to invest in Racine over the past few months. In Mayor Cory Mason’s budget address last month, he stated about $110 million in redevelopment had been announced over the past year.

Connolly said that although Downtown may not be as distressed as other neighborhoods, the zones needed to be created in areas that were likely to attract investment.

“It doesn’t do you any good to create an opportunity zone somewhere that has no tax increment districts, has no other economic benefit, because you’re not going to be able to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Connolly. “I’d be surprised, after all the investment we see in the next couple of years, if that remains a severely distressed Census tract.”

The investments don’t necessarily have to be in commercial real estate — Connolly hopes the designation will draw more housing projects to the area, particularly Downtown.

“I feel like a couple good housing developments in the Downtown and we won’t be in the Opportunity Zone anymore,” she said.

The Department of the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service published last month proposed regulations and guidance for how the tax incentives would operate. While the program is still being fine-tuned, there are already reported concerns about how the program would affect valuations and gentrification.

Connolly said that Racine’s low rents and high taxes have deterred investment in the past; the tax incentive merely balances those factors.

Mason said the incentive is one component of the overall plan to improve living conditions and help people remain in their homes.

“The answer is just the work that the Development Department has already been doing to identify how are we using these funds to stabilize our neighborhoods,” said Mason.


Local
History at high school
Case students hold 3,000-year-old history in their hands

MOUNT PLEASANT — Case High School students this week connected with people living thousands of years ago by holding ancient objects in their hands.

The students in Case’s sophomore Introduction to International Baccalaureate world history class got a rare chance to examine, touch and investigate objects like a 3,500-year-old piece of plaster that once covered an Egyptian mummy, an approximately 4,000-year-old spear tip and a 1,500-year-old ancient Roman mirror.

Students Ella Gonzales and Idelis Roman were both surprised that the ancient people possessed the skills necessary to create some of the objects.

“I think it just taught us that like, even though it was ancient people they still knew what they were doing and they had a lot of advanced things for their time,” Roman said.

Gonzales was especially impressed with a 1,500-year-old terra cotta oil lamp from North Africa.

“It’s kind of just crazy that they could make that somehow,” Gonzales said.

In their hands

The exhibit, titled “The Classical Ancient World,” came to the school free of charge from the Chicago-based nonprofit History in Your Hands Foundation. The exhibits are mailed to schools across the country.

Students who worked with the exhibit cycled through four stations where they examined artifacts in a effort to determine their purposes, took a close look at ancient coins, examined copies of old maps and viewed ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian sites using stereoscopes, or the 1930s version of virtual reality goggles.

Eric Halleen, a social studies teacher at Case, said he was excited that the students got to hold these museum-quality pieces in their hands. He observed that handling the objects helped the students truly connect with the past.

“The coins were in somebody’s pocket, going to the market to buy bread,” he said.

The school has never done anything like this, Hallen said.

“I told the kids that they’ll probably never get to do this again in their life,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll get to do it again in my life, hold something that’s so old.”

He added that it was stressful having teenagers handle the artifacts, but said the students had been mindful in their work.

“Really the big thing for me is them being able to almost think and work like an archaeologist,” Halleen said.


Local
Racine Unified
Racine Unified absenteeism likely impacts achievement, state scores

RACINE — Following the release of state report cards last week that indicated absenteeism is an issue, Racine Unified officials expressed concern at their most recent School Board meeting.

Although the district was not docked points for absenteeism on its state report card, it did come close and six of its schools were penalized for it.

To avoid a penalty, districts must have an absenteeism rate less than 13 percent. Districts are not docked if either their one- or three- year rates meet the goal. Unified’s three-year rate, at 12.8 percent was just under the goal, and its one-year rate at 14.9 percent was above that mark.

Students who are absent from school 16 percent of the time or more count toward a district’s absenteeism rate. Unified’s overall score on the report card was 58 out of 100, slightly lower than last year, putting it in the state’s next to lowest rating, “meets few expectations” for the second year in a row.

During a Monday meeting, School Board Vice President Mike Frontier asked Wendy Rowley, Unified’s executive director of accountability if she was concerned about the absenteeism rate and she answered that she was.

“The trend is not good,” Frontier said.

Janell Decker, Unified’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, added that attendance is a contributing factor when it comes to student achievement scores, which also count toward Unified’s state grade.

“With the attendance rate, the absenteeism, it’s really difficult,” she said. “If the students aren’t at school, we can’t teach them.”

Although the state sets the threshold for absenteeism at students being absent 16 percent of the time or more, Decker said achievement is likely impacted before students reach that number.

“Ten days is the maximum we want to see any student out,” she said.

In a previous interview the district outlined several ways it is working to increase student attendance. They include increasing student engagement; reaching out to families to ensure they have the resources they need to get their children to school and having classroom teachers call students when they’re absent.

Achievement

State report card ratings for districts and schools are based on four categories. They include student achievement on state assessments and student growth on those achievements from one year to the next, which together count for 50 percent of the score. Also factored into the score are closing gaps, which compares how students with disabilities and English language learners in the district are doing compared to those across the state, as well as on-track and post-secondary readiness, which each count for 25 percent of the overall score.

The weighting of the first two categories is based on the number of students in a district who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The more students in the district who receive free or reduced-price lunch, the more a district’s growth score counts. Since around 65 percent of Unified’s students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, only 5 percent of its score is based on student achievement, while 45 percent is based on student growth.

New curricula

Student achievement and growth remained relatively stagnant in 2017-18, compared to the previous year.

Decker said she believes that given time, the district’s new English curriculum, currently in its second year, will help move scores upward.

“We will get there, I’m confident of that,” Decker said.

Frontier asked why the district’s math scores don’t seem to have an upward trajectory, even though that curriculum is already established.

Decker answered that to get the elementary grades on track, in the past four years elementary staff have had to implement new reading, writing, health, and math curricula. Also during that time, teachers dealt with a switch to a different grading system.

“I think Dr. Gallien has been great at slowing the pace down, and now let’s just get good at what we started,” Decker said.

Frontier asked when she expected to see the math scores increase.

“It’s a critical subject,” he added.

Decker said there were some promising results when comparing Measures of Academic Progress scores from last fall to this fall. MAP is an internal reading and math test given three times a year to students in kindergarten through ninth grades. From fall 2017 to this fall, the district did see some score increases. Math scores increased in all grades except third, fourth and fifth.

“We steadily are increasing, time and time again and I think you just have to stick with it,” Decker said.


Submitted photo  

Frontier


Rowley