Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Brownfield cleanups across state seek federal aid

By JULIE MIANECKI

Capital News Service

LANSING – At a time when state money is elusive or nonexistent, Michigan communities, including ones in Allegan and Lenawee counties, are turning to the federal government to finance the redevelopment of contaminated brownfield sites.

Cleanup grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have benefitted brownfield redevelopment programs in those two counties, and both Ottawa and Montcalm counties also have applied for funds.

Brownfields are abandoned or underused properties that were formerly the sites of industrial or commercial facilities. They often pose environmental or health risks to their neighborhoods.

Allegan County received two $200,000 federal grants this year after being turned down the first several times it applied.

“It’s a little bit different here than in some areas of the state,” said Kevin Ricco, director of county development. “We’re not as industrialized as some areas around metro Detroit, but manufacturing certainly still has a presence here. We’ve got a lot of smaller businesses that were mom-and-pop gas stations and that sort of thing that need to be evaluated, cleaned up and made useful again.”

Ricco said the grants will go toward environmental assessment of two types of sites: those with hazardous materials and those with petroleum.

Lenawee County also received two $200,000 assessment grants from the EPA, according to Tim Robinson, chief operating officer of the Lenawee Economic Development Corp.

“So far we’ve used half of the hazardous materials grant,” Robinson said. “We’ve used about 10 to 15 percent of the petroleum grant.”

Robinson added that Lenawee has a wide variety of brownfield sites. Some currently undergoing work include the location of a former grocery story and butcher shop in Morenci, which will be taken over by a Subway restaurant, and the former location of a cannery in Blissfield, which will be turned into a technology park.

Past applications from Ottawa and Montcalm counties were unsuccessful, but both counties reapplied for EPA grants in October.

Jim Sygo, deputy director of environmental protection at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE), said the state has basically run out of money for brownfield programs.

“There was a time when we had in excess of $90 million, divided between grants and loans, to assist developers,” Sygo said. “We’re probably down to our last $5 or $6 million.”

“Our counties continue to be really successful in getting federal tax money, the most plentiful source of funding at the moment,” said Flo McCormack, grant services coordinator at the Michigan Association of Counties. “It’s great, because it’s bringing the people’s tax dollars back into their community to help provide incentives to get brownfields redeveloped.”

McCormack said Michigan is a national leader in securing federal grants for brownfield redevelopment, but the state itself has cut down on funding programs because of economic hardship.

“In the past, the state sold environmental bonds to help fund the program, but it’s not able to do that successfully anymore,” McCormack said.

Despite federal money, the same major problems that face all Michigan businesses with the difficult situation in real estate are affecting brownfield development, she said.

“The market has just about evaporated,” McCormack said. “So the competition for getting a new business into a community to redevelop a brownfield site is harder than ever.”

She added that it’s essential to work on cleaning up such sites so they’ll be ready for businesses to take over.

“We can also provide financial incentives that may make these sites attractive and financially feasible to developers,” McCormack said.

DNRE’s Sygo said, however, that even if businesses want to build on brownfields, banks aren’t as willing to make loans as in the past, so businesses often can’t get enough money to get started.

“A lot of the problem is attributable to the credit risk we have right now as a result of the downturn in housing and the general downturn in development,” Sygo said. “People just don’t have enough confidence. It isn’t that it can’t be done – there just isn’t enough confidence that it’s going to be done.”

“There are thousands and thousands of projects out there,” said Brad Hansen, the environmental program coordinator for Oakland County Waste Resource Management. “We’re not even scratching the surface at this point.”

The Michigan Manufacturers Association predicts a strong future for brownfield redevelopment, although manufacturers have less money to redevelop and build on brownfield sites, said Randy Gross, director of environmental and regulatory policy.

“Everybody is focusing on urban centers to encourage growth in the state, and to encourage growth and reinvestment in the centers you need brownfields,” Gross said. “I think you’re going to see a lot more brownfield redevelopment over the next 10 years.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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