Leigh E. Morris is former President and CEO of La Porte Hospital and former Mayor of La Porte
Northwest Indiana has been blessed with a rich industrial history, and as a result, many parcels of land that were once assets have turned out to be liabilities that we know as brownfields.
A brownfield is a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. Although there is not a complete inventory of such sites in our regions, there are hundreds if not thousands of them. They were once productive assets, contributing to regional vitality by supporting employment, and generating tax revenue. Today they are liabilities. They are mostly abandoned, unused, environmentally challenged and detracting from regional vitality.
Clearly there are some success stories where such a site has been rehabilitated and brought back into productive use. The redevelopment of the massive former Allis Chalmers manufacturing site into the multi-use NewPorte Landing Center in La Porte is a case in point.
The partnerships that evolved with state and federal agencies were a key to the project’s success, but the City of La Porte also utilized a process known as liability insurance recovery to receive millions of dollars from insurance carriers of the former industrial owners of the property for the environmental damage done to the environment by them going back to the early 1900s. The City of Indianapolis has used this same approach very successfully.
In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency selected the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA) for a brownfields revolving loan fund grant. The grant capitalized a revolving loan fund from which the RDA can to provide loans and subgrants to support cleanup activities for sites contaminated with hazardous substances, cleanup planning and community involvement activities in the cities of East Chicago, Gary and Hammond. A subsequent grant provided limited funding for Phase I and II site assessments.
These and other success stories notwithstanding, there has been no overall systematic approach in our region. I believe the time has come for a much more strategic effort to turn more of these brownfield liabilities into regional assets. Here is my suggestion:
• Ask the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) to convene representatives from cities, towns and counties that are interested in remediating brownfields that will support new economic development.
• Ask the Northwest Indiana Forum to solicit the engagement of business and economic development leaders to join with these public sector leaders.
• Bring together representatives of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Indiana Finance Authority Brownfields Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority to gain a clear understanding of the resources that can be available to support this effort.
• Research known sites to select an initial inventory of the highest priority sites for rehabilitation that are deemed to have the greatest potential for positive economic and environmental impact.
• Develop action plans for each of the sites and issue quarterly public reports documenting progress being made toward rehabilitation.
• Document the economic impact of sites that are rehabilitated, including, but not limited to the number of jobs created, new businesses recruited or established, the amount of private sector funding leveraged and tax revenue added.
Concentrating brownfield rehabilitation on sites that have economic development potential shouldn’t imply that other sites should be ignored. However, if this approach is successful, the sites that are returned to the property tax rolls will stimulate new revenue that can help fund rehabilitation of other sites that are environmentally problematic but may not have economic development potential.
Let’s turn more of these brownfield liabilities into economic development assets. That can be a win/win outcome for NWI.