Across the country, communities with brownfield sites tend to have some of the poorest residents and lowest populations. These former industrial or commercial areas, like gas stations or chemical facilities, make future use and development complicated because of possible contamination. It’s a challenge for communities to know where to start in the cleanup and redevelopment process.
However, under the right conditions and in the right communities, these sites are ripe with opportunities for promoting economic and social well-being. Communities are starting to take notice of the long-term benefits of reinvesting in these sites. For example, a former tar distillation (and superfund site) in Indianapolis was redeveloped as the nation’s largest solar farm. In Austin, a chemical research facility was redeveloped as a multi-use property that included homes, apartments, offices, and retail space.
Kathie Brown, an Extension Educator at the University of Illinois, works to help communities plan their development efforts. “Typically, we’re involved with communities and helping them conduct assessments and pulling in secondary data that could inform their decision making and to create different kinds of plans, whether they are strategic plans, action plans, or residential development planning,” Brown said.
Redeveloping brownfields can be a great way of cleaning up property that has the potential to provide economic value to a community as residential, commercial, or recreational grounds. “One of the projects that Extension was involved in was a grant where we were encouraging communities to look at federal funding opportunities. There is a whole set of issues surrounding why communities don’t pursue federal funding. Some are not aware of how those function, the other part of it is that in-house they do not have the capacity to write a federal proposal – some communities do – but the majority of small communities would not,” Brown said.
Here are some tips to assess whether brownfield assessment or redevelopment is a good option for your community and how to get started:
Tip 1: See what funding opportunities are available.
Communities should look to the EPA Brownfield Program and other federal funding to get started on the redevelopment, as a combination of public funding and private investment is what typically makes most projects possible. “The first step is knowing what [funding] is out there and the second step is finding someone you can work with in developing the proposal,” says Brown.
Tip 2: Find out what resources are available to help you with the process.
The Brownfield EPA Program provides technical assistance to communities and their stakeholders and helps them access the resources needed to assess, clean up, and redevelop. Brown advises finding out who deals with brownfield redevelopment projects for your state. You can find technical assistance for your region, here. “They [your regional EPA] are on your team. They really want you to succeed and their primary purpose is to help you make this happen. So they can really be a coach and a support person in navigating through the process.”
Tip 3: Understand there are costly steps, but always keep the long-term vision top of mind.
Many brownfield sites have been in a community for a long time due to the high cost of redevelopment. An Environmental Site Assessment is a 3-step process that determines the presence of contaminants. This process includes researching former uses, collecting all documents that are relevant to the land, and a non-invasive inspection to determine contamination. “There can be some really simple steps, although expensive,” says Brown, “We’ve worked with a project that was a public land that had been used for federal purposes. They identified patches of contamination in the soil, so their immediate strategy was to remove that soil and keep the soil that wasn’t contaminated. This is one of the more expensive steps, but the long-term returns are worth it.” The EPA also has assessment grants that can help fund this process.
Tip 4: Prepare for success!
Have a long-term vision for your project. In 1984, Canton, Illinois’ International Harvester closed its 33-acre plant along with 3,000 jobs. The land was then used for farm equipment manufacturing, tire shredding and processing, and other industrial operations. Whether or not this site was redeveloped greatly impacted the community’s future growth. In 1999, the city of Canton received $1.3 million in EPA Brownfield grants.
The project caught the attention of the late Bill Cook, a Canton native and founder of Cook Medical Devices. Cook invested $20 million in two medical device facilities on the site, which created 150 jobs during the recession. This initial investment has since stimulated over $150 million of community-wide investment. Cook’s vision included even more projects for the site, like a new hotel and more retail space. The county had more housing developments initiated than they have had in the past fifteen years combined.
To Brown, it’s the bold actions of those like Cook that make all the difference. “I think leadership is always the critical piece. You have folks that can see the long-term vision.”
Canton continues to rebound, but its comeback story gives a perfect example of what can happen when stakeholders and a community commit to putting in the work needed to bring new life to their community.
Programs for redeveloping brownfield sites are result-oriented and sustainable. To date, 117,000 cleanups have been completed and 1,000,000+ acres are now ready for reuse. And for fiscal year 2016, the EPA awarded $55.2 million to 131 communities to help underserved and economically disadvantaged communities assess and cleanup brownfield sites.
The EPA Brownfield Program is not only improving our nation’s environment, but bringing widespread economic benefits to our communities as well. A recent EPA study found that communities’ residential property values (near cleanup sites) increased from 5.1 percent to 12.8 percent, created jobs within the community, expanded the tax base, and revitalized the communities’ economies.