Pence in Columbia

Vice President Mike Pence meets with South Carolina business leaders after speaking at Meeting Place Church of Greater Columbia to tout U.S. Sen. Tim Scott's "Opportunity Zones" program. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — Vice President Mike Pence visited an economically struggling neighborhood in a northeast section of South Carolina's capital city Thursday to tout the "Opportunity Zones" program U.S. Sen. Tim Scott championed in Congress.

Under the initiative, which went into law as part of the tax overhaul Washington passed in 2017, states can choose a certain number of areas in the state considered "distressed" to receive tax incentives that encourage businesses to make long-term investments in low-income communities.

Before addressing a crowd of roughly 100 local business leaders and church members, Pence and Scott toured the Meeting Place Church of Greater Columbia, meeting with faith leaders, a Bible study group and receiving a brief private performance from a small group of gospel singers.

The church purchased and renovated the previously vacant strip mall three years ago. A banquet and conference center and new movie theater were built next door. A restaurant there is expected to open soon.

The community is hoping more businesses will move in because of incentives from the Opportunity Zones program. Pence said he believes "the blessings have just begun" for the area.

"After years of a neighborhood that's been struggling, because of the vision that Sen. Scott brought here, because of the ingenuity and determination of this great community, you're all coming back," Pence said.

Scott explained that his background growing up in a single-parent household "mired in poverty" inspired the effort. 

"There are places in our nation where the recovery has been uneven, where folks have felt left behind," Scott said, adding that the areas "had amazing potential but the opportunities were not landing close enough to those communities."

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South Carolina was the first state to submit its list of census tracts to the U.S. Treasury Department for Opportunity Zone consideration, selecting 135 areas that fit the criteria, including the area surrounding the church and movie theater.

Critics have questioned the selection of some of the census tracts chosen for the program, including a thriving area on the Charleston peninsula. That area was eligible because it includes many College of Charleston students, reducing the average household income.

The program has also faced scrutiny due to reports it could personally benefit President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who advocated for the idea as it was making its way through Congress.

But the effort received nothing but praise from business leaders who met with Pence and Scott in a small roundtable after the event. Pence called it "transformational" and heaped praise on Scott for the idea.

"What I know is in the heart of every man and woman running businesses in this country is to do right by everybody in the community," Pence said. "So I want you all to understand and appreciate this additional incentive to make those investments that can create and expand economic opportunities to every community in the country."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.