CINCINNATI — Tony Rankins, a U.S. veteran who found himself homeless in Tennessee after returning from a tour of duty, now lives and works in Cincinnati. He was invited to the White House for the 2020 State of the Union address, during which President Donald Trump spotlighted Rankins' successes and touted something called "Opportunity Zones" created by his administration.
But some of the President's remarks about those zones stirred up questions and sparked an Associated Press article that challenged the validity of Trump's statements with regard to Rankins' connection to Opportunity Zones.
Now, Rankins and his employer want to clarify and set the record straight.
Travis Steffens, owner of Rankins' employer, R Investments, said Rankins does live and work in an Opportunity Zone, and R Investments is making a way for those struggling with homelessness.
Rankins was homeless when Steffens gave him housing and a job as a tradesman in Nashville, and Rankins later transferred to Cincinnati to work on another project with the company. The Cincinnati project he's working on is in an Opportunity Zone -- an area the federal government has designated worthy of tax breaks for revitalization.
The Associated Press makes the point that, at the time Rankins began working for Steffens and climbing out of homelessness, he was not working in an Opportunity Zone in the job site in Nashville.
"I really don't think it was manipulated, I really don't," said Steffens. "President Trump said Tony lives in an Opportunity Zone and works in an Opportunity Zone and he indeed does live and work in an Opportunity Zone."
The AP is correct in saying that Rankins didn't always, but Steffens said he believes their article misses the point of the work they're doing.
"When we met Tony, we were not working in an actual Opportunity Zone," said Steffens. "We were actually working across the street, literally 200 yards from an Opportunity Zone."
The AP also notes that R Investments didn't utilize the tax credit offered to developers in those zones. But Steffens said that shouldn't matter -- he wants people to understand that his company has always invested in lower income communities and has always tried to help those struggling with homelessness.
The Cincinnati project Rankins now works on through the company is in an Opportunity Zone. The AP points out that at the time of the State of the Union address, Rankins did not work at the R Academy site, but in a different Opportunity Zone. Steffens said this is a minor detail, and distracts from the positive work R Investments is doing to give people a second chance in life.
"For the last 3 1/2 to 4 years we have been taking homeless people off the streets, housing them in the projects that we are working in and giving them the tools of the trade that we want to train them in and training them in that trade on a very strong foundational structure,” said Steffens.
Rankins said this work has saved his life.
"Not only mine, but others like me that still work with me," he said.
The Cincinnati project is a warehouse in Camp Washington. R Investments is working to renovate it, using the Opportunity Zone tax credit to turn the space into an academy where those struggling with homelessness will learn life skills and trade work.
"When the people graduate, they are guaranteed job placement within our enterprises working throughout Opportunity Zones in the rough areas of the country," said Steffens.
R Investments and its partners are pouring a total of $9 million into the future academy, where they plan to help around 200 people graduate every year. Graduates will be required to live on-site in a community, to keep them distanced from lifestyles that may hurt their attempts at getting sober or staying out of trouble. After graduating the academy, they will then work for R Investments on the renovation of distressed properties in Opportunity Zones throughout the country. The academy program is intended to last for 90 days.
"I want to lead the way on how to focus in these areas to make sure that gentrification doesn’t become a problem and make sure that displacement isn’t a problem and that we are truly focusing on the people first," said Steffens.
Steffens contradicted the AP article focusing on President Trump's statements and thinks it diminishes the work the organization plans to do with the Opportunity Zones. While it may have been inaccurate for Trump to say R Investments is helping 200 homeless people a year get back on their feet, that statement won't be inaccurate once the warehouse academy is up and running.
Steffens said he hopes to break ground in March.