RACINE — One recurring theme at Racine’s Smart Cities Conference was the importance of partnerships for planning, financing and rolling out smart technologies.
It should be no surprise then that almost all of the announcements during the two-day conference on Wednesday and Thursday pertained to partnerships between the city and various entities with the aim to accomplish certain goals.
Wednesday’s biggest announcements were about U.S. Cellular rolling out 5G in Racine, fiber-optic cable the city has already installed, an incentive from InSinkErator to reduce food waste and the possibility of kiosks to share information about transportation, local businesses and events.
Thursday’s announcements pertained to a wide range of topics, from public safety to incentivizing development.
Opportunity zones update
Almost one year ago, the city announced plans to take advantage of a program through the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which allows investors to reinvest their capital gains within Opportunity Zones — census tracts designated as needing and having potential for redevelopment — and in exchange receive a reduction on 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.
The City of Racine has three Census tracts that have been designated opportunity zones — though Mayor Cory Mason half joked on Thursday that it should have received more: Tract 1 which encompasses Downtown Racine; Tract 4, the area just north of Downtown; and Tract 5 which is just west of the railroad tracks from Hamilton Street to just south of 16th Street and includes Uptown.
On Thursday, Mason and Terese Caro, chief lending officer at Legacy Redevelopment Corporation, announced that the City of Racine is close to becoming the first Wisconsin community to set up an opportunity fund to connect investors with opportunity zone redevelopment projects and assure they receive tax benefits.
“We want to fuel the future by taking a leadership position,” said William Martin, the city’s chief innovation officer and the organizer of the Smart Cities conference.
Caro said the fund, called the “Forward Wisconsin Opportunity Fund,” is about 85% complete and it will be set up well before the Federal Government’s deadline on Dec. 31. Through the fund, investors can capitalize commercial, residential or industrial construction projects or new businesses and startups.
Another announcement was that the City of Racine’s police and fire departments are asking that businesses and residential buildings provide full schematics to be used in emergency situations.
“Being able to know the interior of the building in advance means the difference between life and death,” said Martin.
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The schematics will be added to the CityWorks program which provides emergency services with navigation information. The program will allow emergency personnel to see a three-dimensional layout of the building, including doors, windows, stairs and hallways.
Fire Chief Steve Hansen said those maps can be particularly helpful in a fire where smoke can impede fire fighters’ ability to see where they’re going. It could also be helpful in an active shooter situation because law enforcement can see where survivors or the shooter could be hiding.
Opening up city jobs
The city is also collaborating with a nonprofit organization called Umos, which provides services to under-served communities including bridging the gap between businesses seeking employees and those who struggle to re-join the workforce.
Chief Operating Officer Tina Koehn said the company receives funding from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families for its transitional jobs program, which focuses on workers from low- to moderate- incomes who have been unemployed for over four weeks and do not receive unemployment insurance. Koehn said some groups the company works with are the long-term unemployed and those who were previously incarcerated.
Ferdinand Gaud, who is based in the Racine office, helps connect qualified candidates with short-term employment where they will also receive skills training. Umos subsidizes some or all of the employee’s wages for up to six months, reducing the risk to employers so they’re more willing to take on riskier hires.
“Once someone has been on the job for three months or longer, they’re likely to stay,” said Koehn.
The City of Racine is partnering with Umos to connect job seekers with available jobs at the City of Racine.
Finally, as the city brainstorms for where and how to implement smart technologies, it has formed a Smart City Business Alliance so business leaders can provide input on the city can best set up resources so businesses can succeed.
Mason said the business alliance will allow area businesses to provide ongoing input and feedback to the city on Smart City projects.
Next week, on Sept. 19, the Smart Cities Council Readiness Workshop will allow anyone and everyone to provide input on how smart technologies could improve city services and how they should be prioritized. The ultimate goal, according a press release from August, is to develop at 12- to 18- month plan for implementation.
Mason also announced the top four Racine businesses that have been nominated for the Racine Innovation Award, which will be presented at the Racine Innovation and Technology Gala, on Sept. 25 at Festival Hall, 5 5th St.
- InSinkErator, 4700 21st St.
- Cree Lighting, 9201 Washington Ave.
- Designs Touch, 201 6th St.
- Andis, 1800 Renaissance Blvd.
Tickets to the Innovation and Technology Gala are $50 and includes dinner.
To register and purchase tickets for any Smart City events, go to RacineSmartCities.com