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Transforming Communities Through Brownfields Redevelopment

Transforming Communities Through Brownfields Redevelopment

Three Lessons from a Virginia Town’s Decade of Success

By Deborah K. Flippo and Shawn Utt

The promise of brownfields redevelopment is that once-blighted property seen as a liability can be reimagined and repurposed into a community asset that spurs additional investment and serves as a transformational catalyst. For the many communities around the country that still grapple with how to address brownfields and potentially contaminated sites, this vision can seem more like a dream than anything else. Although navigating the road to success can be complex and challenging, the experiences of certain communities stand as a testament to the true potential that brownfields redevelopment can bring.

Nestled in the rolling hills and mountains of Southwest Virginia, the Town of Pulaski has become a surprising and seminal example of brownfields redevelopment. Surprising because a town in the heart of Appalachia has defied the odds and seminal because Pulaski’s example has inspired other communities to structure similar brownfields redevelopment strategies.

Before. Photo: Draper Aden Associates

Since the town’s brownfields program was launched in 2009, Pulaski has seen over $10,000,000 of economic development capital investments by several private companies, tourism developments, and community improvements. These private investments were spurred by the town’s brownfields program and have helped transform Pulaski from a heavy manufacturing and industrial based economy to a vibrant commercial and service economy.

In over a decade, Pulaski’s team of citizens, leaders, local officials, and consultants have learned a number of important lessons. Three key factors to the success of a brownfields redevelopment program include planning, community buy-in, and ongoing program administration.

Significant and Strategic Planning

Planning is a crucial step for any community that wants to launch a brownfields redevelopment program and secure financial support from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the form of grants. Early planning is critical and should begin by identifying potential sites that could qualify as brownfields. The number of sites in a community is a factor as is the potential to redevelop those sites.

Applying for EPA Brownfields Grants is a time intensive process and increasingly competitive, but worth the effort. These three-year grants were the foundation upon which Pulaski’s program was built. Towns and cities should partner with an established and experienced consultant to help them evaluate brownfields sites and complete the grant application process.

A final planning component is to create partnerships of support in the community. These partnerships can be among community members, business leaders, and others. This broad-based support is a factor in EPA grant evaluation and is necessary to make brownfields redevelopment a reality on the ground.

It’s important to note, though, that coalitions also can be built across jurisdictional boundaries. Multiple municipalities can consider a broader partnership to help secure EPA grant funding. A great example is the regional partnership formed by the City of Williamsburg, James City County, York County, and the Greater Williamsburg Partnership in Southeastern Virginia. This coalition secured a $600,000 Community-Wide Brownfields Coalition Assessment Grant from the EPA in 2019.

EPA grants often get a lot of attention, but don’t discount available funds from state entities. Pulaski has benefited significantly from state-level support in Virginia, for example. The Virginia Brownfields Assistance Fund, funded by the Virginia General Assembly and administered jointly by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, awards grants that can be used for brownfields planning and remediation. This support can be crucial for brownfields redevelopment.

Community Support

As highlighted in the planning section, community support is fundamental to the success of a brownfields program. In Pulaski, the town’s Economic Development Board — composed of leaders from throughout the community, and representing businesses, community organizations, local government, and health care – evolved from a community oversight group to an energized brownfields redevelopment steering committee. Their efforts and enthusiasm sparked the beginning of Pulaski’s renaissance.

Collaborating with community leaders and economic development officials to support brownfields redevelopment will be helpful in the EPA grant process and will remain vital throughout the program as sites are identified and redevelopment is encouraged.

That ongoing support can make larger brownfields redevelopment more attainable as well. In Pulaski, the most alluring brownfields project was also the largest to date: the Jackson Park Inn and Conference Center. A former three-story building constructed in the early 1920s that lies adjacent to Town Hall and across the street from Jackson Park, the building had various owners and sat vacant for years. The site was identified during a brownfields assessment and targeted for redevelopment. The result is a $5,000,000 investment by a local developer that transformed the building into a boutique hotel and conference center that also includes a bar and restaurant with outdoor seating on Peak Creek.

Program Administration

Once a community has committed to a brownfields redevelopment program and funding has been secured, the next phase begins. Ongoing program administration is an absolute requirement from the EPA. This administration will ensure that sites are properly identified and help incentivize brownfields redevelopment.

Identifying the right team members, internally and externally, can make all the difference in proper program administration.

How you leverage initial grant money will play a major factor in any potential future rewards. Those communities that can show progress and success are well positioned for additional three-year grants. Pulaski’s ongoing revitalization is credited in large part to the continued success in securing brownfields grants. The town has now secured four awards for the highly competitive federal brownfields funding, which along with state brownfields assistance funds, totals over $1,500,000. These funds have facilitated Phase I and Phase II environmental site assessments as well as remediation and redevelopment planning for about 25 sites to date. These results aren’t possible without proper program administration.

The story of Pulaski is one of hope, revitalization, and a promising future. The town’s robust brownfields redevelopment program has been a catalyst to transform this community. Projects have included major investments, an international business locating its U.S. operations in the town, and a renovated minor league baseball stadium helping enliven downtown. Pulaski also has seen projects specifically focused on its citizens. For example, a brownfields site located adjacent to Peak Creek received state Planning and Remediation Grants to facilitate assessments, conceptual planning, demolition, and soils remediation. The current plan is to redevelop the site as a public recreation complex with a skate park and basketball facility connected to downtown via a promenade.

Brownfields redevelopment can bring an enhanced economy and quality to life to communities that once thought they were mired in blighted, unproductive and potentially contaminated brownfield sites. The future can be bright, and lessons from Pulaski’s brownfields redevelopment success provide a roadmap to making that future a reality.

Deborah Flippo is Economic Development Program Manager with Draper Aden Associates, a Mid-Atlantic engineering, environmental services, and surveying firm. Based in the firm’s Blacksburg, VA office, she leads efforts on economic development, including brownfields redevelopment. She has worked with regional organizations, cities and towns in Virginia and North Carolina on brownfields redevelopment grants and programs. Deborah can be contacted at dflippo@daa.com.                                                                                      

Shawn Utt has served as Pulaski’s Town Manager for the past seven years and served as the County’s Director of Economic Development for seven years prior. He is keenly aware of the power of “cleaning the slate” using the Brownfields Grant program funding which has helped to keep the Town of Pulaski’s rejuvenation moving forward. Shawn can be contacted at sutt@pulaskitown.org.