Mayors See Money, Jobs in Brownfields

DENVER, Colorado,
June 9, 2003 (ENS) - Many cities across the United States are facing tight budgets due to state spending cuts, rising security costs and a weak national economy, but the U.S. Conference of Mayors believes contaminated vacant lots and industrial sites could help ease their financial woes.

A new survey released today by the organization finds that redeveloping these sites, known as "brownfields," could generate more than 575,000 new jobs and $1.9 billion annually in new tax revenue for the nation's cities.

"Redeveloping brownfields holds tremendous economic potential for our cities and our nation," said Boston Mayor and Conference President Thomas Menino. "Congress should respond to mayors and increase funding for assessment and clean-up to help stimulate hundreds of thousands of new jobs and potentially billions of dollars in new revenues, at a crucial time for the economies of our cities."

The U.S. Conference of Mayors represents some 1,100 U.S. cities with 30,000 or more residents. Its brownfields survey identified 922 sites within 153 cities that have already been redeveloped and provide evidence of the possible financial gains. This redevelopment of some 10,600 acres has brought in $90 million revenue to 45 cities and more than 83,000 jobs in 74 cities.

The message, says Menino, is that much more can be done.

The survey finds 205 cities with some 25,000 brownfield sites awaiting development, and of these 148 cities reported that 576,373 new jobs and as much as $1.9 billion annually could be generated if their sites were redeveloped. brownfield

There are hundreds of thousands of sites, like this one in Baltimore, Maryland, that have been identified as brownfields. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA))
Some 82 percent of undeveloped sites lacked clean up funds, 59 percent had liability issues and 51 percent require environmental assessments. Seventy five percent of respondents said that additional resources are needed to attract greater private sector investment.

It takes money to make money, the mayors say, and the EPA's Brownfields program needs increased funding.

The organization wants Congress to provide $250 million in annual funding for the program, in line with the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002.

The law created a formula for rehabilitating properties that would permit a federal liability waiver and authorized up to $250 million per year for brownfields grants, including up to $50 million for the assessment and cleanup of low-risk petroleum contaminated sites.

But as is often the case with federal programs, the appropriation has so far not met the authorization.

In 2003, Congress appropriated $170 million for the EPA's brownfields program, a $30 million cut from the Bush administration's request of $200 million. Most of the cuts came from local assessment and clean up funds.

The Bush administration has been keen on brownfields development, but the mayors are concerned that the 2004 budget request of $210 million eliminates funding for redevelopment of these sites, instead earmarking the money for assessment and clean up projects.

What is frustrating for the mayors is the program appears to work.

Launched in 1995, the EPA's Brownfields program was created to ease concerns of developers about the risks associated with redeveloping the nation's abandoned and contaminated waste sites, such as old gas stations, factories and buildings that may be contaminated with lead or asbestos. dallas

This site in Dallas, Texas, was once a brownfield. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Through funding incentives, feasibility tools and grants up to $200,000, the program has helped states and local communities and organizations entice developers into taking on brownfields projects they might otherwise have ignored for fear of liability for buried wastes and/or contamination.

Brownfields sites are carefully screened for contamination before an appropriate reuse plan is established. In residential areas, citizens help make the decisions for their neighborhoods.

The EPA reports that so far the agency's brownfields assistance has leveraged more than $4.6 billion in private investment through 645 grants and has helped create more than 20,000 jobs and has resulted in the assessment of more than 4,000 properties.

Redevelopment of brownfield sites is not just good for the economy - there is evidence it can help ease the pressures of urban sprawl. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that every acre of reclaimed brownfields saves 4.5 acres of green space.

Environmentalists are keen on the idea, given the oversight is sufficient and appropriate.

"The tension lies in that we do want to redevelop these sites - there are a lot of really good reasons to do this - but the first priority must be public health," said Julie Wolk, environmental health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

But there is clearly a huge demand for the limited dollars at the EPA's discretion - the General Accounting Office estimates there are close to half a million brownfield sites throughout the country.

"Brownfield redevelopment is a key component of revitalizing many of the nation's urban neighborhoods," said Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson, who co-chairs the Conference's Brownfields Task Force. "Turning these properties around and making them productive makes city neighborhoods better places to live, work, and play."

The Conference also levied support for a plan to creating new funding streams at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Commerce to help prepare brownfield sites for redevelopment.

"Brownfields redevelopment is a win-win for everyone involved," said Charlotte Mayor Patrick McCrory, who chairs the Conference's Environment Committee. "It is pro-environment, pro-business, pro-neighborhood, and pro-smart growth."