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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Before: An old rail yard in downtown Baraboo is adjacent to the world-famous Circus World Museum. © DNR Remediation & Redevelopment
Before: An old rail yard in downtown Baraboo is adjacent to the world-famous Circus World Museum.

© DNR Remediation & Redevelopment
After cleanup: The city built a $5 million public works facility. © DNR Remediation & Redevelopment
After cleanup: The city built a $5 million public works facility.

August 2008

Back in business

Old factories and abandoned properties are prime real estate to recharge and energize downtowns.

Andrew Savagian

From blight to highlight

We barely notice them on our daily drives, when shopping downtown, or on bike rides along the riverfront. Like aging volumes on a dusty bookshelf, the old gas stations, shuttered factories, smokestacks and vacant spaces tell us nothing about the story behind their worn exteriors.

Some of these abandoned "brownfields" are less than an acre in size; others would dwarf several football fields. We think of them in industrial cities, like Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, but they are also found in small towns and nearly every village in rural Wisconsin. They are often painful reminders for communities because they can be unsightly, they haven't been cleaned up in years, and they recall more prosperous times when employers like steel mills, rail yards, scrap yards, plating companies, canneries and tanneries provided jobs that fed families and the local economy.

The beauty is we are learning these old eye-sores can become assets again. They are usually centrally located, within walking distance of homes and would-be workers, on major transportation routes and already have sewer, water and other utilities.

One such recovery story begins in Waunakee, a town of about 9,000 people in Dane County. For decades, the local Stokley canning company was an economic powerhouse that once employed 300-400 people in the heart of the community.

Times changed, and so did the fate of the cannery. By 1997, the plant was still shipping vegetables, but only employed 25 full-time workers. The Chiquita Banana Company purchased the facility in 1998 and promptly closed its doors for good. A brownfield was born.

At about the same time in Stevens Point, a Brownfields Study Group convened by the State Legislature was developing incentives for hundreds of Wisconsin communities like Waunakee to turn an estimated 8,000 – 10,000 brownfields into community assets once again.

Like many brownfield reclamation projects, the Waunakee site looked like something out of an old black and white movie – shuttered doors, rusted tanks, scores of broken windows and graffiti laced walls framed the 13.5-acre site and gave the community landscape an unwanted black eye.

"It was quite derelict," said Kim Wilde, Waunakee's city administrator. "Definitely not something you wanted in the heart of your community. One of our state senators toured the property with us, and he had some military background. It really reminded him of a war zone – it was pretty awful."

Wilde noted the site posed safety and environmental concerns, too. Local police were frequently called in to deal with vandals. In addition, two 10,000-gallon underground storage tanks on the property held old gasoline and an unknown material. The surrounding soil was contaminated with petroleum fuels. Monitoring wells showed contaminants like benzene and toluene in the groundwater at concentrations that exceeded state standards. It was a big headache for city officials, who in years past had little recourse to take action.

"You don't know what you're dealing with and you're afraid of liability for what you will find," said Wilde. "[Back then] a lot of communities stayed away from these sites."

Waunakee's lament was typical of communities across the state and the nation. Without governmental support most local officials mothballed these properties, leaving them idle for years or decades.

The legislature charged the 30-member Brownfield Study Group of local government officials, consultants, state agency staff, lawyers, professors and nonprofit representatives to develop alternatives. Their early decisions proved important in guiding practical solutions. First, the group agreed that any idea from anyone was worth considering. Second, recommendations would be forwarded via consensus, but the group would also include any dissenting opinions in the final reports.

The study group really works both sides," said Charlie Bartsch, former director for Brownfield Studies with the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington, D.C. "It has been much more than your traditional blue ribbon committee, where they do the report, shake hands and go home. This is truly an ongoing, revolving effort."

The study group's report contained more than 70 recommendations including a simple funding program to help local governments like Waunakee jump-start cleanup investigations at properties like the Stokley factory. Called the DNR Brownfields Site Assessment Grant (SAG), the program provides seed money to assess abandoned properties and conduct limited activities to remove immediate hazards like pulling old, underground gas tanks or removing abandoned barrels.

Legislators and the governor took the study group's recommendations to heart. More than 25 proposals were added without debate into the 1997-1999 biennial budget.

"I think everyone was pleasantly caught off-guard," said Darsi Foss who heads the DNR's Brownfields and Outreach Section.

"We made the case that helping the environment could be good for economic development, and to the legislature's and governor's credit, they felt that these were solid recommendations that had been duly vetted by the study group."

Waunakee's revitalized Village Center. © DNR Remediation & Redevelopment
Waunakee's revitalized Village Center

© DNR Remediation & Redevelopment

From blight to highlight

Today that Waunakee site is a brownfield no more. After working with an environmental consultant to secure a $100,000 Brownfield Site Assessment Grant, the city investigated a good portion of the property and got the site ready for cleanup and redevelopment.

"The grant was very helpful early on to give us an idea of what we were dealing with," said Wilde. "It gave us information we needed to know about how big a problem we really had. We wouldn't have been as aggressive in pursuing [cleanup] without a grant."

The environmental consultant, Scott Wilson of Ayres and Associates, was more emphatic. "[The SAG] was absolutely and unequivocally important to the project – without it, that building would still be standing," said Wilson. "It really was the glue that held that project together."

With a plan in place, the city garnered an additional $1 million in other state and federal funding to help clean up and redevelop the property. After cleanup, Cannery Row, Inc. acquired part of the property and built a 77-unit senior housing facility on part of the site in 2005. Then in 2006, Waunakee built a new community center and a stormwater retention basin on the remainder of the property. The retention basin manages runoff into Sixmile Creek, which feeds into Lake Mendota.

Susan McDade, Waunakee's Community Services director, said the new Village Center offers a wide range of facilities and programs for the entire community and beyond. Both redevelopments employ more than 50 people. The former blighted property was valued at $500,000 and is now worth approximately $12 million.

In 2007, the city won a Wisconsin Parks & Recreation Association Award of Excellence and a national Community Sustainability Award from the International City Management Association for the Stokley project. This year Recreation Management magazine presented Waunakee its Editor's Choice Award for the site's innovative architecture and design.

"When we talk about this site, we try to tell people that it's never easy, and if you look at the whole project, it can get overwhelming," McDade said. "But without the brownfield grant, this project would not have happened. It gave us a starting point and we knew, at a minimum, we could get this location cleaned up."

Another 187 communities in Wisconsin echo McDade's feelings and have made good use of the DNR SAG program since its inception eight years ago. Those communities have conducted more than 722 site assessments and investigations, removed 479 storage tanks, demolished 529 structures and helped clean up 1,400 acres of contaminated property.

As for the study group slated to run one year? It is now in its tenth year of public service, has recommended 65 additional proposals, including new grants, insurance programs, and tax and liability incentives for brownfields. Its work has helped make Wisconsin one of the top states in the nation for promoting brownfield cleanups and redevelopments in the past decade.

"Wisconsin is second to no state in putting together the kind of long-term, cross-sectional, public/private partnerships represented on the study group to drive land reuse," says Bartsch.

Kim Wilde agrees. "I think the two most important tools Wisconsin has to really make these projects happen are the state brownfields programs combined with Tax Incremental Finance (TIF) districts. Those two tools together are very powerful, and make Wisconsin a leader in brownfields redevelopment."

Andrew Savagian is a natural resources staff specialist and communicator with DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment Program based in Madison.