October 25, 2013
Grant to help unlock brownfields
$359,500 outlay from state will be used to investigate industrial sites’ redevelopment
CORTLAND — A $359,500 grant from the state to investigate the redevelopment of former industrial sites within the city will impact the majority of the city’s southeast section.
The Brownfield Opportunity Area grant is a step in the state’s program to rejuvenate the communities that surround derelict business sites.
Former industrial sites included in the grant proposal area are the former Buckbee-Mears plant and Noss Technology Park, the former site of Wickwire Brothers screen wire and nail factory.
Thoma Development project manager Rich Cunningham, who helped develop the city’s application, said that the 540-acre area is not all brownfields but could benefit from the redevelopment of certain sites.
Brownfields under the grant’s definition include vacant or abandoned industrial sites, or areas that were previously impacted by an industrial site, Cunningham said.
The Brownfield Opportunity Area program is unique from other brownfield revitalization programs because of its focus on the entire community, as opposed to an individual property. The program is designed to look at the economic and environmental impact brownfields and other blighted properties have on neighborhoods as a result of factors such as lost tax revenue and impacted property value.
“I think there’s a strong tie between people and what’s in their neighborhood,” Mayor Brian Tobin said. “What we want to do is start to talk about what people in the community want to see that’s in line with the city’s comprehensive plan.”
Former industrial sites can be given new life under Brownfield Opportunity Area grants as parks or residential and commercial areas, allowing solutions tailored to the specific neighborhood.
The Brownfield Opportunity Area grant funds will be used to develop a plan for the properties inside the target region. Studies for the sites will include an economic and market trend analysis and potential for reuse or revitalization. The process is expected to take 30 to 36 months.
No work to improve a site is expected until the end of the planning period, nearly three years from now. Another Brownfield Opportunity Area grant for physical revitalization would help finance the work once the city completes its comprehensive plan.
Following the Brownfield Opportunity Area model, Cunningham said the city will select four or five sites within the 540 acres for redevelopment. Criteria for making the selections will include the amount of impact and opportunity for revitalization.
The city will need to work with private owners to effect change on any potential site. Finding willing partners is especially important, Cunningham said.
The fate of the former Buckbee-Mears plant will have the greatest impact on how the Brownfield Opportunity Area grant is distributed. A Nov. 12 auction of the site will determine whether the city has additional responsibility for the plant.
If the facility does not sell, the city could claim the property for payment of back taxes from the Bank of India, which owns the mortgage, and then sell the property.
“The biggest question is, will we have to put resources back into Buckbee-Mears,” said Mack Cook, city director of Finance and Administration.
The Buckbee-Mears facility, which produced television aperture masks from 1974 to 2004, was contaminated with thousands of gallons of heavy metals and chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spent over $8 million cleaning up the site since 2007 and an additional $125,000 to fund a usage study completed in 2012.
Since the nomination phase of the Brownfield Opportunity Area grant includes provisions for determining a site’s ideal usage, the EPA study already accomplishes a piece of that objective, Cook said.
Some sites that could fall under consideration of the Brownfield Opportunity Area grant, including the former Potter Paint plant on Crawford Street and the Wickwire sites, have been suggested for different projects in the past that did not come to fruition.
Other sites that formerly housed industry in Cortland remain unchanged from their state when the grant was applied for in March 2012, over 18 months ago. Those sites, such as the former Thompson Boat plant on Elm Street, are prime candidates for revitalization.
The former Wickwire and Potter Paint sites had been involved in rumors for repurposing in the past, including the construction of a controversial county health building. While both sites were in discussion during a 2007 South End meeting, no development occurred at the sites.
When Thoma Development presented a South End Strategic Plan in 2007, one popular suggestion included constructing a grocery store over the former Wickwire site at Crawford Street on the west side of Main Street.
The fact that many of the city’s brownfield sites have not been redeveloped shows how difficult it can be to find viable buyers and developers. While the Brownfield Opportunity Area grant allows the city to consider a wide variety of options for the former industrial sites, including parks, housing and commercial space, finding private partners interested in the sites can be a challenge.
One former brownfield site approved for development is the Rosen Superfund site, which is being leased by the city to New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway Corp. The railroad plans to construct a $900,000 storage facility and three sets of tracks funded by the state Department of Transportation.
It represented a strong turnaround for an area deemed a Superfund site back in 1989 due to soil contamination and illegal dumping at the Rosen Brothers scrap yard and dump. Construction to remediate the site was completed in 2003. The Rosen Brothers site is part of the former Wickwire factory site.
While the issue of brownfields and neighborhood revitalization is important, Tobin said that any action related to the grant money will likely be held off until after the city budget has been finalized.
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