WVU's Northern WV Brownfields Assistance Center is Resource for Communities

The State Journal
4 July 2012

For 30 years, the Northern Panhandle town of Chester was faced with a 10-acre blight, and at least one effort to clean it up had already failed.

But fixing such problems is exactly why the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center at West Virginia University was created. and why communities like Chester are grateful.

Although it acts primarily behind the scenes, the Center was "instrumental in getting things moving," in Chester, said City Clerk Sandi Parkins.

By providing community leaders with links to state and local agencies and other resources, the Center was able to plan, and secure funding for, the removal of the former Taylor, Smith and Taylor Pottery factory, which hasn't been in business since 1981.

The process started with a $5,000 grant from the Center's Foundation for Overcoming Challenges and Utilizing Strengths, or FOCUS, program, which established Rock Springs Riverfront Redevelopment Committee, a local task force of Chester stakeholders whose work to redevelop the site led to last year's sale of the property to the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle.

Further connections led to a $200,000 check from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, by way of the West Virginia Development Office, and a loan of $500,000 from the Hancock County Commission to redevelop the derelict property.

The combined funds will be used for the removal of any hazardous material, demolition and eventual cleanup in order for a new business to take root in Chester.

Projects like this are the goal of the Center, which serves 33 counties in the northern part of West Virginia. The Center, which is funded by the state as well as grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the WV Division of Energy, was established in 2005 as a program of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. The Brownfields Assistance Center at Marshall University takes the lead in assisting brownfields in the state's southern counties.

The property in Chester is just one of many redevelopment projects the Center has going around the state:

In Moundsville, it hosted community engagement meetings that led to the redevelopment of a former glass factory site.

In Clarksburg it helped facilitate the cleanup and sale of the former Adamston Glass Site.

Current projects include a redevelopment vision for the Morgan County Recreational Complex and planning help for remediation of a site at Scott's Run outside of Morgantown.

Patrick Kirby, director of the Center, said brownfields became a growing national issue in the 1990s when abandoned businesses and plants began to dot the landscape, threatening local environments.

The Center defines brownfields as "property that has actual or perceived contamination and has potential for redevelopment or reuse." The sites vary in size from a large abandoned steel mill to a small gas station. A few abandoned mine sites are also included.

Many sites in the Brownfields inventory have been identified through involvement with FOCUS, a program funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. FOCUS WV helps identify sites and also provides seed grants (typically $5,000-$12,000) to attract other investors, nonprofit groups and community stakeholders.

The assessments usually come with obstacles. In many cases, the site has been idle for years and tracking down the legal owner can result in a maze of paperwork. Failed attempts to remediate an abandoned site can cause the problems to linger, become an eyesore, leading to a negative psychological impact on a community that causes inaction.

"Getting people to change their perception and see potential uses for the site down the road is the most important part. If that doesn't happen, the project doesn't happen," said Luke Elser, the project manager for theFOCUS WV Brownfields Program. "What we try to have the community look at is not the problem they have of an old building, but the opportunity they have because once that building is gone you often have prime real estate."

Once the Brownfields Center gets buy-in from local leaders and officials, it connects them with experts to help with the legal and environmental aspects of the project, which also helps in grant writing and leveraging project funding. The Brownfields Center also works closely with state agencies like the WV Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Most of the communities in WV are small and they don't have big development staffs," said Dave Saville, the Brownfields Center's outreach coordinator. "Our job is to not only help communities identify brownfield sites but to connect the project with the resources to complete the assessments, clean it up, and ultimately help them find new owners and people who will help develop the site into an economic community asset."

The site in Chester marks another success for the Brownfields Center and for the region. Simply removing the eyesore will beautify the city, but a new business will create economic opportunities and further development.

"The demolition of the site is definitely going to help," Parkins said. "It's going to give a much better impression of the city and provide additional local job opportunities."