Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Federal money supports brownfield redevelopment in Southeast Michigan

By JULIE MIANECKI
Capital News Service

LANSING – At a time when state money is elusive, sometimes even nonexistent, Michigan communities are turning to the federal government to finance the redevelopment of contaminated brownfield sites.

“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.”

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

Grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have benefited Macomb County’s brownfield redevelopment program, said Gerard Santoro, a senior planner with the Department of Planning and Economic Development.

“We’re actually seeing an uptick in redevelopment of properties,” Santoro said. “Macomb County is a highly industrial county, and we’re seeing highly specialized and defense industries take their roots here.”

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.”

Santoro identified locations cleaned up with EPA money, including the former site of a Dodge dealership in Mount Clemens, which is being taken over by a auto collision shop; the former site of a tool-and-die manufacturer in Chesterfield Township, which is being taken over by Dynamic Control Inc., which builds control systems for the defense industry; and the site of a St. Clair Shores restaurant that will be demolished.

He added, however, that there are still many undeveloped brownfields, including about five miles of sites along both sides of Groesbeck Avenue adjacent to the Canadian National Railroad in Warren and Roseville.

Other sites have leaking underground storage tanks, usually former gas stations and auto repair shops.

Leaking tanks threaten to contaminate groundwater, and Santoro estimated such sites in Macomb to be in the thousands.

“Every municipality in our county has several major sites they can point to where they can say, ‘This needs to be dealt with,’” Santoro said.

Oakland County’s Hansen said that difficult economic circumstances usually would mean less brownfield development, but the county received a $1 million EPA grant for work at more than 60 sites.

Farmington Hills, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Madison Heights and Pontiac received $100,000 each, with the remaining $500,000 going to other Oakland County municipalities.

“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, Michigan still faces major problems in terms of 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.

Meanwhile, Wayne County isn’t encountering difficulty in finding businesses to develop cleaned-up sites, said Dave Tyler, deputy director of the county’s Economic Development Growth Engine.

“Development has certainly slowed down,” Tyler said. “But if we look at good-quality industrial space that might come onto the market, generally that space gets picked up pretty quickly.”

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.”

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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