Erie, Pa., Opportunity Zones to See Public Wi-Fi Rollout

In an effort to make the eight zones more attractive for investment, the city council approved a professional services contract to bring wireless Internet service to those areas as soon as Dec. 31.

by Kevin Flowers, Erie Times-News / August 8, 2019
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(TNS) — Free public Wi-Fi is now officially earmarked for eight areas of the city of Erie designated as federal Opportunity Zones.

Erie City Council on Wednesday waived agenda rules and approved a professional services agreement with Quantela Inc. — a global data analytics company that is working with the city and the Erie Innovation District on technology-based projects — as part of a plan that would bring Wi-Fi to public spaces throughout the Opportunity Zone tracts.

The intent is to make those areas more attractive for investment.

As part of the agreement, the city would pay Digital Alpha Advisors LLC, Quantela's investment partner, $30,000 a year for a 10-year period. In turn, Digital Alpha Advisors "intend to make an upfront equity investment of $506,000 to fund the initial rollout" of the project, according to an Aug. 1 letter sent to Mayor Joe Schember by Krishna Prasad, a senior director at Quantela.

Velocity Network, the Erie-based Internet provider, will provide the fiber-optic network for the Wi-Fi service, according to the agreement between the city and Quantela, a copy of which was obtained by the Erie Times-News.

The Wi-Fi coverage area within the eight Opportunity Zones is roughly 4½ miles, according to the agreement, which also states that the infrastructure could be in place as soon as Dec. 31.

"I'm all for it," Council President Jim Winarski said. "I don't know a lot about all the technical aspects, but adding this technology is certainly something that could help bring development to those areas."

The Times-News reported in March that public Wi-Fi, additional security cameras and LED lighting was among the technology that local officials want to bring to city neighborhoods targeted for reinvestment under the federal Opportunity Zone program, created as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2017 as a way to boost economic investment in low-income, urban and rural communities. It provides tax incentives to investors — money from capital gains can be invested with major tax advantages. City officials estimate that the region's Opportunity Zones could attract up to $600 million of investment.

The city areas approved for the Opportunity Zone program are Erie's bayfront; the former GAF Materials Corp. site on the city'' west bayfront; Scott Enterprises' $150 million Harbor Place development on east Dobbins Landing; the Erie Innovation District along State Street; and the neighborhoods near UPMC Hamot and Erie Insurance.

The other tracts are the former International Paper site and the SB3 Industrial Park, both located on East Lake Road; Savocchio Business Park near East 16th Street and Downing Avenue, which would be renamed the Joyce A. Savocchio Opportunity Park as part of the city's plan; and areas of the city adjacent to the Wabtec facility in Lawrence Park.

The zones were designated by Gov. Tom Wolf's office and certified by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Karl Sanchack, the Innovation District's CEO, has said that moving such smart technology into the Opportunity Zones is a logical next step for what's known as Erie's smart city plan. Smart cities are urban areas that use different forms of electronic data collection, including sensors, to supply information that is then used to efficiently manage assets and resources.

A smart city pilot project was announced in April 2018 and focused on downtown Erie, including Perry Square. New LED lighting, video surveillance cameras and free Wi-Fi were installed in an area encompassing State Street, between Sixth and 12th streets.

Renee Lamis, Schember's chief of staff, said the city would look to leverage the $506,000 investment from Digital Alpha Advisors "to go after additional funding" that would support the project.

Gary Horton, president of the Urban Erie Community Development Corp. at 2046 E. 19th St., has repeatedly said that enhancing technology in the Opportunity Zones is crucial for underserved neighborhoods like the ones near the Savocchio business park.

UECDC in January completed a $100,000 purchase of 19 of the business park's 25 acres as part of a plan to create a community hub. The purchase includes only vacant land and no buildings.

"I'm pleased that it's moving forward," Horton said. "People need that kind of access."

©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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