Wilbur Ross 110717 01

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross spoke to a group of about 20 local business leaders during a roundtable meeting in Roanoke on Friday.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross credited the Trump administration’s “America-first economic policies” for new jobs and low unemployment rates across the country, including Virginia.

While visiting the Roanoke Valley on Friday, he did acknowledge that the benefits have not been “evenly distributed in some parts of this region.”

The national unemployment rate is 3.6% — the lowest in nearly 50 years. Virginia’s stands at 2.9%. In some parts of the economically struggling areas of Southwest and Southside, the unemployment rates are 4% to 5%. The Roanoke region’s unemployment rate is 2.5%.

“What I did notice when I went around last evening was quite a few empty storefronts, so there’s obviously lot more repair that’s needed,” Ross said.

Ross spoke to about 20 business leaders — in sectors including banking, manufacturing and construction — about the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, which is still awaiting approval from Congress. The discussion portion of the meeting was closed to the media.

He said Canada and Mexico are Virginia’s first- and third-largest trading partners. Last year, exports to those countries totaled $4.3 billion, with most of the exporters being small and medium-sized companies.

He said the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico would further benefit those Virginia businesses.

“The Virginia economy in general has a dynamic momentum,” Ross said.

As far as rural regions that are still struggling economically, Ross highlighted the Opportunity Zones program created in 2017 in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The zones offer tax benefits to those who invest in low-income communities. Someone who sells an investment at a profit can defer the capital gains tax on the sale if the proceeds are placed into a fund that invests in an opportunity zone. The investor can defer paying federal tax on the reinvested profit until December 2026.

The goal is to incentivize investors to put money into neglected areas that need investment.

There are 212 opportunity zones in Virginia, with 87 in Central and Western Virginia. Downtown Roanoke — where city officials have focused development efforts — is one in the Roanoke Valley.

“Downtown has been somewhat reborn, but it needs more,” Ross said.

Rep. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, who attended the roundtable Friday, said afterward that he wants to ensure easy access to training and certification so residents in opportunity zone areas have the skills that will attract businesses.

Ross said the opportunity zones can be a “powerful tool” and encouraged the business leaders to consider them.

“I’d urge you to give very serious thought to your development plans or any programs you have to bring people in from outside the region, try to get them going with the opportunity zones,” he said.

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Amy Friedenberger is the politics reporter for The Roanoke Times. She's been a reporter here since 2014. Previously, she worked for newspapers in Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @ajfriedenberger.

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