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Speeches/Remarks

Dr. John Fleming
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce
For Economic Development
International Economic Development Council
2018 Federal Forum
Monday, April 15, 2019 – 12:30pm

[As Prepared for Delivery]

Thank you, Tracye, for the kind introduction and thank you for your leadership as Chair of the Governance Committee!

I’d like to thank IEDC’s Board of Directors and President and CEO Jeff Finkle for the invitation to address the Forum today.

It’s great to see so many leaders from across the nation and from around the world here today dedicated to building strong, sustainable communities.

As an entrepreneur, veteran and former Member of Congress, I’m passionate about economic development and the role that the government can play in helping to create the conditions for private sector capital investment and job creation.

As the newly sworn-in Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, I look forward to visiting your regions, seeing your projects, and learning first-hand about the challenges that you face.

I’d like to start today by letting you know a bit about my background.

At age 11, growing up in a working-class home and influenced by my nurse grandmother, I began to have a dream of being a doctor one day.

My grandmother convinced me that in America you can achieve whatever you want with hard work.

I believed her. However, in the pursuit of my dream, I found obstacles.

My mother became disabled when I was 5, and my father died suddenly just before I graduated from high school leaving a college education in doubt.

Nonetheless, by working part-time and with the help of government loan programs, I achieved my goal of becoming a physician while caring for a family back home. It was not an easy pathway.

I loved my work in medicine. I spent the first 6 years as a U.S. Navy medical officer.

Upon finishing my military tenure, I set up a private medical practice in a small town in Louisiana where my wife and I raised 4 children.

Along the way I became interested in another quintessential American dream: becoming a small business entrepreneur.

In partnership with my brother, I began to open various retail franchised businesses that grew to over 500 employed positions that remain in existence even today.

Again, there were challenges. I had to acquire capital. I had to develop management systems. I had to implement leadership accountability and many other things required for developing a successful suite of businesses.

I also experienced business reversals just like any business owner.

I believe my grandmother’s sage advice is still true today - through hard work, you can achieve whatever you want.

It’s through these personal experiences that I appreciate EDA’s mission of assisting communities like yours.

As I embrace the role of Assistant Secretary, I am proud of EDA’s reputation of fostering sustainable economic growth, cultivating job creation and encouraging innovative solutions that improve local and regional economic development outcomes. 

This afternoon I’d like to speak with you about the work that we are currently conducting at EDA to help support your locally-devised development projects.

As you know, one of our main focuses today is working with you to effectively deliver $587 million that were appropriated to us by Congress to support your local plans to recover – and grow back stronger – following major disasters that occurred in 2017.

At EDA, we are uniquely positioned to coordinate regional disaster recovery efforts in partnership with our extensive network of 391 Economic Development Districts, 52 Tribal Partnership Planning organizations, University Centers, institutions of higher education and others working to assist those in designated impact areas. 

Of course, one of our strongest and most vital partnership we have in these endeavors is our partnership with IEDC.

Working together, we have helped to implement post-disaster recovery programs for Hurricane Harvey impacted areas in both Texas and Louisiana and to coordinate a Volunteer Assistance Program to serve Hurricane Irma disaster impacted communities.

I am excited to note that the vital EDA/IEDC partnership will continue to strengthen to help impacted communities.

I'm pleased to report that EDA has made a grant to IEDC to support the Northern Mariana Islands Economic Resilience Project.

This project includes delivery of technical assistance on infrastructure redevelopment, assessment and analysis of the regional business environment, and delivery of economic resilience and recovery training.

Importantly, our $353,000 grant is being matched by $88,250 in IEDC funding.

I am also pleased to report that EDA has invested in IEDC to organize and deploy economic development volunteers that will provide technical assistance to impacted communities in the County of Hawaii. 

There, EDA’s $189,000 grant will be matched with more than $47,000 in IEDC funds.

I look forward to seeing how these projects will help these impacted communities recover, and I thank IEDC for their continued partnership.

I also want to personally thank all of you here representing impacted regions for the critical efforts you have undertaken to help your communities recover.

On this Tax Day, I’d like to now add to the buzz that Fran created in her talk about Opportunity Zones.

As noted, under the President’s tax-cut law, Opportunity Zones will play an important role in expanding entrepreneurial opportunity in distressed communities.

As a businessman, the President knows that entrepreneurship is the economic backbone of communities across America.

I want to stress that this new, unique and special tool is available to virtually anyone to enhance Return on Investment.

Under the program, investors qualify for lower capital-gains tax rates and the ability to pool their money in “opportunity funds” to spend on projects in blighted or under-served communities.

As economic developers, I want you to think of Opportunity Zone investment as a new arrow in your quiver that can work to not only enhance ROI for business interests, but also encourage the public/private partnerships needed to drive private investment to distressed areas – adding a social value to investing.

In a nut-shell, investing in Opportunity Zones provides a broad, easily accessible tool that can offer something to everyone.

Critically, EDA has taken the step in its 2018 Notice of Funding Opportunity for Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance Programs to make eligible entities within qualified opportunity zones generally eligible for EDA funds.

We have already seen communities across the country utilize this eligibility category when applying for EDA grants.

Since FY 2018, we have invested more than $13 million in 22 projects in Opportunity Zones to help communities and regions build the capacity for economic development.

I encourage you to visit the Commerce Department’s website, or to contact the EDA Regional Office serving your state or territory, to learn more about how the President’s Opportunity Zones Program can create incentives to bring capital into your regions.

Supporting your local manufacturing strategies is also an important focus of EDA today.

One of EDA’s key investment priorities under this Administration is projects that support the planning and implementation of infrastructure for skills-training and related facilities that address the hiring needs of the business community – particularly in manufacturing. 

This emphasis leads to investments in job-training facilities and innovations centers, particularly in areas experiencing rapid economic transition in their economies, such as coal-impacted communities. 

EDA is also focusing attention on emerging areas such as space commerce by building the basic infrastructure and skills-base that these industries need to thrive.

This will continue to boost American manufacturing jobs, which have already grown by almost 500,000 since the President took office - the most job growth in this essential sector of the U.S. economy in more than two decades.

At EDA, we also understand that entrepreneurship is the engine of our economy - after all, entrepreneurs and small businesses are our greatest job creators.

We also understand that innovation is the fuel for the engine and believe that all citizens should be empowered to innovate in order to carve their own paths to prosperity.

Our Regional Innovation Strategies – or RIS – program allows us to help by awarding grants to a broad range of communities and entities to develop and strengthen high-growth, innovation-based regional economies.

The program helps build regional capacity to translate ideas and inventions into products, services, companies, and jobs, through increased access to capital and entrepreneurial support, ultimately increasing regions’ economic competitiveness.

Since 2014, RIS has awarded $78 million in Federal funds and attracted an additional $89 million in local matching funds across 180 projects in five grant competitions. 

As of March 2018, RIS projects have created or retained more than 8,200 jobs and attracted more than $1 billion in follow-on startup capital.

We look forward to announcing our 2019 RIS grantees this fall.

Finally, I would like to highlight EDA’s actions as the integrator of economic development resources for communities.

Interagency collaboration can help to achieve shared goals.

This role as an integrator of Federal economic development resources allows us to help customers – whether EDA grantees or other partners – leverage the Federal assets that our communities and regions need to produce impactful economic development projects.

This assistance can be especially valuable to you as you work to attract private investment in Opportunity Zones.

Please visit EDA.GOV to learn more about how we can help you make these connections.

To conclude, I want to again thank each of you for your time and for your leadership in creating economic opportunity in your regions and beyond.

It is through your hard work that we are helping these and other communities create new economic opportunity and jobs.

I appreciate the confidence that President Trump and Commerce Secretary Ross have shown in me and for the opportunity to continue my service to the American people.

I am honored to be working for a President whose America First agenda prioritizes American jobs, American workers, and American industry instead of burdensome regulation and unfair trade deals.

I am honored to be working for a President whose policies have unleashed American growth at a pace the experts thought was not possible, with real GDP growing at 3.0 percent during 2018, the fastest 4th quarter to 4th quarter growth rate since 2005. 

I am honored to be working for a President that prioritized tax reform to boost economic confidence across all of our business sectors.

As a result of these policies, we’ve seen non-stop job creation since the President’s election, with more than 5.5 million jobs being created to date.

Working together, we will see these numbers continue to grow.

Thank for the opportunity to be with you today!

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