U.S. Sen. Tim Scott led a discussion Thursday in downtown Aiken about opportunity zones, an investment and redevelopment program the senator is credited with shepherding and seeing to fruition.

Scott, a South Carolina Republican, explained to a packed-out luncheon crowd at Newberry Hall exactly what opportunity zones are and what he believes are the initiative's perks and purpose.

"And so when I think about the opportunity zones, in many ways the goal of the opportunity zones is to have folks who have the time and or the resources to invest in places and in people who cannot today invest in themselves," Scott said.

Opportunity zones are designated tracts of land meant to draw dollars and development by way of tax incentives – an Aiken official has previously described it as a thumb on the scale. The opportunity zone program went into effect with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act near the end of 2017.

Aiken, Opportunity Zone map (copy)

Aiken's opportunity zone, located on the Northside, is highlighted in blue.

Aiken is home to one opportunity zone; it's located near the Northside. The median household income there is shy of $26,000, according to an opportunity zone website set up by the state.

"And so when I think about opportunity zones, I don't think about the return on the investment dollar first. I don't think about all the things that are going to be good for investors first," said Scott, who Aiken County Council Chairman Gary Bunker described as the father of the program. "I think about people who are in desperate straits, people who are struggling even in this amazing economy we have today."

There are thousands of opportunity zones nationwide. There are more than 100 in South Carolina alone.

During a stop in Columbia with Vice President Mike Pence earlier this year, Scott described the opportunity zone program as an "olive branch of hope." 

"It's that notion that everyone in every place at any time should be blessed with opportunities," the senator said at the time.

Questions and concerns about gentrification are often raised, Scott told the crowd Thursday, but so far it's proven rarely to be an issue.

"So what's happened over the last couple years with the opportunity zones now coming fully to market?" he said. "A lot of good news in a lot of different areas with conscientious investors changing communities without running people out."

Aiken's opportunity zone includes the old Aiken County hospital property, which has been targeted for dramatic – and to some, controversial – redevelopment.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin