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President Donald Trump signs an executive order to help federal agencies aid the "opportunity zones" program, which is designed to attract billions of dollars of private investment and government resources to distressed communities. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday directing more federal resources to struggling neighborhoods — an initiative hailed by the pastor of an East Baltimore church who appeared at the event and stood next to the president.

Trump’s order, signed in the crowded Roosevelt Room of the White House, will help federal agencies aid the “opportunity zones” program, which is designed to attract billions of dollars of private investment and government resources to distressed communities.

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The program, part of a 2017 tax reform law, offers capital gains tax relief to investors for new investment in nearly 9,000 designated areas — including some in Baltimore.

Trump named U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary — and former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon — Ben Carson to head a council overseeing his plan to identify resources and regulations that will allow 13 federal agencies to coordinate with state and local officials, as well as stakeholders in the opportunity zones.

A planned trip by President Donald Trump to the Broadway East neighborhood in East Baltimore was canceled this week. While a discussion of "opportunity zones" for investment, like Broadway East, will take place at the White House instead, residents say Trump missed an opportunity to see the need.

“This council will support communities like East Baltimore, where Pastor Donte Hickman is helping lead a groundbreaking project in the newly designated opportunity zone,” Trump said, as Hickman stood nearby. “He’s been an incredible leader.”

Hickman, pastor of the 4,000-member Southern Baptist Church, had invited Trump to talk about the program in what would have been Trump’s first visit to Baltimore as president. The visit was scheduled for Wednesday in Baltimore, but the White House announced Monday that it would be held in Washington instead because of scheduling difficulties.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings declined invitations to attend the White House event. Hogan is a Republican and Pugh and Cummings are Democrats.

Asked for reaction to Trump’s announcement, Pugh issued a statement.

“We welcome additional federal dollars to bolster our efforts to attract investment and revitalize long-neglected neighborhoods of our city,” the mayor said. “We have no more urgent task than to transform the prospects of residents of these areas that have waited too long with too little resources for an adequate quality of life.”

Things to know about opportunity zones, including what they are, how they would work and who benefits.

While at the White House, Hickman repeated his invitation to Trump.

“We welcome you to come to Baltimore to see the potential transformative impact of your leadership and investment through this executive order,” Hickman said. “Baltimore is prepared to be a demonstration project for a national urban revitalization strategy.”

The event was attended by a group that included Carson and Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump. She did not address an Associated Press report Tuesday that said she promotes the opportunity zone program even as it could financially benefit her husband, Jared Kushner. The report said Kushner, also a presidential adviser, holds a stake in a real estate investment firm that is starting a series of opportunity zone development funds that seek to build major projects under the program.

State officials have selected 149 communities around the state to be nominated as "Opportunity Zones" under the new federal tax law passed by Republicans last year. The designation is designed to draw capital to struggling neighborhoods by giving investors big tax breaks.

Hickman’s Broadway East is among the neighborhoods designated as an opportunity zone. The program was created last year in a Republican rewrite of the federal tax code.

“Mr. President, I want you and every agency and potential investor to know that in Baltimore — and in particular, Broadway East Baltimore — that we have the plan, that we have the property, we have the people, we have the professional expertise, and we have the prospectus to jump start your urban initiative,” Hickman said.

The opportunity zone concept has bipartisan support and has been highlighted in particular by Pugh as in important tool for helping revitalize the city. It allows investors to cut their capital gains tax bills if they put money into special funds that back projects in the zones. Critics, however, worry it’s a massive tax giveaway benefiting real estate developers who will bypass many poor areas and focus instead on existing projects in opportunity zones nearby.

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