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A Public-Private Affair: EPA grant funding kick-starts brownfields cleanup in Springfield

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Springfield officials are poised to help rouse the potential for millions of dollars in private development with a federal grant to help rub out so-called brownfields.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded the city $300,000 in grant funding to address the sites where development or redevelopment is hindered by contamination, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Through the grant, the city garnered funding to assess 30 new sites for environmental toxins and develop an additional 10 site cleanup plans to remedy issues during the next three years, said Olivia Hough, city brownfields coordinator and senior planner.

“That’s an estimate, but that’s a pretty good estimate, based on what we’ve been able to do in the past,” Hough said of the process for which a single project could span a couple months to a year.

Springfield in 2013 received a similar EPA assessments grant worth $400,000, according to city records. Hough has said the funds ultimately helped the municipality leverage some $400 million in private investments.

“This is a program where everybody can feel good about what we’re investing in,” she said. “It’s a very popular program for our community.”

Leg up
The brownfields funding is the type of kitty that helped redefine the city’s downtown.

In addition to remedying land issues, the funds also are used to address contaminants in structures, such as lead and asbestos.

Springfield Loft Apartments LLC owner Jason Murray, for example, said he’s used the funding for at least five center city projects, most recently a $2.5 million renovation of Springfield Public Schools’ former Bailey school.

Built in the 1930s and sold to Murray in 2016 for $300,000, it’s being converted to 24 residential lofts. The project also was helped along by other public programs, such as city-approved property tax abatement, and state and federal historic tax credits.

The environmental assessment for the 501 W. Central St. property, he said, was handled entirely by the city and a private firm contracted as part of the grant program. For him, it was a hands-off process, Murray said.

And he lucked out in terms of toxins, without having to foot the extra bill.

“Because it was a school, it looks like they had gone through and done all of the abatement sometime years ago,” said Murray, who’s aiming for completion in early spring 2019. “It was really a clean site.”

On the city’s northwest side, nonprofit Drew Lewis Foundation founder Amy Blansit said that wasn’t entirely the case for the former Fairbanks school, built in 1906. Blansit and her husband Drew Lewis acquired the building in 2013. After Lewis died of cancer, Blansit started the foundation in his name.

The building sat vacant for years, Blansit said, before the city’s environmental assessment and an additional $200,000 grant for the needed cleanup gave new life to the project.

Blansit is restoring the schoolhouse into a northwest Springfield community hub, aptly dubbed The Fairbanks, with a refurbished auditorium, teaching kitchen, technology lab, and visual and performing arts space. Currently, it’s used by two church groups – Life360 and Redeemer – as well as Springfield Community Gardens and the Missouri Mentoring Partnership.

The project cost should tally $1.2 million, Blansit said, and it would not be possible without the brownfields assessment and remediation aid delivered by the city.

She said the project also benefited from Community Development Block Grant funds courtesy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Blansit said lead-based paint is the main contaminant in the building, though significant remediation had been completed by SPS during the 1980s.

“Basically, the building is blighted and not able to be used in its current format,” she said, later adding that an official completion date is to be determined. “My hope is that in six months, we’re up and operational.”

Northwest focus
With the newly acquired $300,000 grant, Hough said the city will again prioritize northwest Springfield, where higher levels of environmental contaminants coexist with elevated concentrations of poverty.

“It’s an environmental justice issue for us that the area has both a concentration of brownfields and a concentration of lower-income residential neighborhoods,” she said.

Among more than 500 other brownfields expected to exist citywide, Hough said, assessment work also will continue at the roughly 4 acres owned by McCoy Iron & Metal Inc. at 321 N. Fort Ave., which the city might later purchase.

The property lies adjacent to longstanding efforts to turn land designated for Jordan Valley Park West Meadows into urban greenspace west of downtown. As previously planned, the space is set to include pocket wetlands, a sizable stormwater detention pond, pedestrian trails and a public plaza.

Plans have been in place to revitalize the 14-acre West Meadows for nearly a decade. It’s an obvious focal point for the city, with at least $800,000 in EPA cleanup grants funneled into site work there since 2009, according to city records.

Donated to the city by BNSF Railway, the former railyard and industrial site was found laden with high levels of arsenic, petroleum compounds and other volatile materials, particularly in its central and west-central portions, according to the records.

Hough said project completion isn’t yet known, but city officials plan to publicly discuss the next steps this summer.

She said the city also aims to assess lots for sale along the Kearney Street corridor to assist potential buyers. Priority, Hough said, will be given to sites historically used as fuel stations.

Who does what
In addition to city-selected sites, Hough and crew will identify potential brownfields via individual funding applications from residents citywide.

Hough said any private landowner or potential buyer of such properties within city limits is eligible to apply for the aid.

“It’s a pretty simple, straightforward application about the property,” she said, later adding that sites are then chosen based on such guidelines as community benefit, economic development, creation of recreational greenspace and the like.

“We try to quantify that, if we’re putting public funds into a property, that the community is going to get something out of it,” Hough said. “Job creation, that’s a big one.”

Another big one, she said, is the planned private investment for a property once a brownfield is removed.

“One of the criterion we’re looking for is projects that have good leveraging potential,” Hough said, while taking note of other program participants, such as Aspen Springfield, the $40 million apartment complex on St. Louis Street.

“The best projects have public-private partnerships, because that’s usually what makes them successful,” she said.

The city also will be contracting with two private-sector environmental consulting firms to complete the expected 30 assessments and 10 cleanup plans, Hough said. The city likely will seek contract proposals nationwide in early June, she said.

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