by Elizabeth Limbrick, NJIT / NJII
Many of the movers and shakers in the brownfield industry were in attendance at the National Brownfields Workshop 2015 in Chicago. The conference was well-attended and sparked a great dialogue. One ever-present mover and shaker, was Dan French, of Brownfield Listings. Mr. French was a featured panelist at BCONE’s 2015 Northeast Sustainable Communities Workshop. Mr. French’s company, Brownfield Listings, provided a new web portal giving communities an opportunity to list their brownfield properties, projects, and profiles for free.
Several of the educational sessions were standing room only, including: Hopportunity Knocks, and the Keys to Sustaining a Local Brownfields Program. In addition, to the plethora of education sessions, there were plenty of opportunities to network with colleagues and meet new people. BCONE co-hosted a lunch meet up, with over 30 people attending.
One of the overarching themes discussed at Brownfields 2015 was that the there has never been a better time for brownfield redevelopment. The challenge for brownfield redevelopment is taking risk, and our jobs as brownfield professionals are to minimize that risk.
Even before the conference kicked off there were great pre-conference sessions on many topics including Environmental Justice, which was hosted by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. Other important topics covered at the conference included, managing stormwater on brownfield sites, working with railroads, green infrastructure and environmental justice. A bike tour of Chicago provided an opportunity for participants to tour former brownfield sites within the City that had been transformed into park space.
The Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, USEPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, and Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanisalaus kicked of the official start of conference with a rousing opening plenary session. The session harkened back to the 1980s with Administrator McCarthy calling for communities to demand clean air, clean water, and healthy communities. She also noted, “People need to have a connection to the natural world.” Administrator McCarthy added, “We have the moral obligation to address local environmental issues, like protecting vulnerable populations.” Administrator McCarthy also stated that the choices for local communities are best by those local communities and that EPA’s role is to fund and assist, “A little bit of money can spark a lot of investment.” Administrator McCarthy provided us with many interesting statistics on the program. Since the EPA Brownfield grant program began, over 24,000 sites have been assessed, 1,000,000 acres have been cleaned up and made ready for reuse, and $23 Billion has been leveraged for cleanup and redevelopment. One of the most interesting statistics Administrator McCarthy shared was that when brownfields are redeveloped 32-52% fewer vehicle miles are traveled in those neighborhoods. This indicates that brownfield redevelopment is transforming communities into vibrant places / destinations, and that they are no longer a drive through community where people are running to get out. Mathy Stanislaus noted that “Brownfields are the economic engine of the future” and that brownfields unleash potential.
For the Mayor’s Roundtable session, Congressman Dan Kildee interviewed several mayors. Congressman Kildee asked, “How can the federal government find support for all kinds of large-scale projects, but we can’t seem to find ways to subsidize a full-scale supermarket?” Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary Indiana noted that when it comes to sustainable practices “Everyone loves density until it comes to their neighborhood.” She also noted that “It takes a lot of patience to get brownfields work done. The work has to be done over a period of time over many administrations.” Duluth Minnesota Mayor Don Ness, summed it all up with the quip that “As a mayor, brownfield work seems magical. We need to tell better stories." He added that Brownfield works takes courage. And Dayton Ohio Mayor Nan Whaley noted that brownfields redevelopment is "about making people believe that their community can be great again." Mayor Madeline Rogero of Knoxville Tennessee noted that there is so much brownfield redevelopment in Knoxville that “Our new city flower is the orange construction cone.” The mayors also noted that over the years, we had turned our back on our natural resources, such rivers, because they had such a bad legacy of pollution (whether it was from tanneries, or slaughterhouses, or chemical factories). In recent years, there has been an awakening, and communities want to take their resources back. Many communities have now embraced rivers as resources, and included them in their redevelopment plans.
This and more was seen and heard throughout the days of the conference. Seek out a professional or firm who attended for more detailed information regarding technical, financial, and regulatory stories that are currently driving brownfield redevelopment near you. The conference was a great success, with so many experts in one place.