Still time for a great opportunity in the GO ZONE

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The U.S. Senate approved a measure Friday to extend the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act, giving new hope that lucrative tax incentives to build condos, apartments and businesses will last a few more years.U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker added an amendment to a housing bill, and his addition passed 74-5. U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran co-sponsored the bill.

The new GO Zone plan would give tax breaks to builders of apartments, condos and businesses only in Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River and Stone counties. When it passed just after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the legislation had incentives for nearly 50 Mississippi counties but those are about to expire.

The 2005 bill's deadline requires builders to start construction before the end of this year, but under the new legislation, it wouldn't matter when work begins, as long as it's done by Dec. 31, 2010.

The extension is necessary, officials say, because protracted mandatory environmental assessments, delays in the new FEMA flood elevation maps, and high construction costs have kept many developers from being able to make the current deadline.

"This should help thousands of people still struggling two and a half years after the storm to rebuild their lives," Wicker said.

Cochran said the GO Zone extension helps build lower-income housing as well as new businesses, which have been difficult to build since the storm.

"In many cases, the paperwork and application process required by the government prevented those who wished to rebuild from taking advantage of federal assistance," Cochran said. "Mississippi has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina, but there is still considerable rebuilding to be done."

Gov. Haley Barbour said Friday he hopes Congress works quickly to extend the GO Zone legislation.

"The people of South Mississippi are working hard to rebuild, but in too many cases undue bureaucratic hurdles - such as delayed flood elevation levels, which were just released in December - have prevented them from taking advantage of the GO Zone program as Congress intended," Barbour said. "I appreciate the U.S. Senate's action dropping the commencement deadline for using GO Zone benefits. I particularly want to thank Sens. Cochran and Wicker for their diligent, effective work on this important issue."

The new GO Zone amendment is part of a larger housing bill that is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate next week. If passed, the bill would still have to be approved in the House. Wicker's communications director Jordan Stoick believes the bill has a good chance of passing as long as nothing controversial is added.

"The prospects, as long as a poison pill isn't added next week, look very good," Stoick said. "The housing issue has become such a huge and critical issue that there is a lot of momentum behind it. We have that momentum going for us."

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