Turning brown to gold

We need to recapitalize the state Brownfields Redevelopment Fund

For years, the corner of Gerrish Avenue and Highland Street in Chelsea was a weed-strewn lot. The neighborhood had a long industrial past, once home to box factories, a machine company, and a brass factory. Like so many fading industrial areas, it became home to illicit activity as the factories folded.

Today, thanks in part to the state Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, the lot is home to Chelsea’s Box District Park. New residents of the apartments that were created in the redeveloped factories gather at the park, helping to eliminate the crime and dereliction that plagued this neighborhood for years.

Despite the pivotal role this program has played in the revitalization of communities across the Commonwealth, funding for the state’s brownfields redevelopment initiative has been depleted. It’s time to get this effort back on track.

Contaminated sites dot cities and towns across Massachusetts. Often relics of a dirtier industrial era, these sites might be old mills, factories, or industrial dumping grounds. In fact, the baseline soil contamination in many of our Gateway Cities would classify entire districts as brownfields. They are a drain on municipal revenues not only because they generate little or no property taxes, but also because they depress the value of the surrounding neighborhoods and cost city services in the form of crime, fires, and deteriorating public health.

Without help from the Commonwealth, it is financially impossible to redevelop many of these properties. The Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, established in 1998, has made more than $78 million available for the assessment and clean-up of 630 sites in every region of the state. Under the management of MassDevelopment, these funds have helped create more than 4,000 units of housing and 2,600 jobs.

Unfortunately, the fund ran out of money in June 2013. There is a long list of projects already in the pipeline, located from Fall River to Springfield. MassDevelopment estimates there is nearly $28 million worth of current demand alone, and that $60 million will be needed over the next several years.

There is an unusually diverse coalition supporting the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, including the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, NAIOP (the Commercial Real Estate Development Association), Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Metropolitan Mayors Association, municipal officials and economic development organizations throughout the state, as well as Mass Audubon, clean-up professionals, and other environmental groups.

State legislators have been receptive, and recently made a $15 million down payment for the fund, but it’s only the first step. Gov. Deval Patrick proposed $10 million for the fund in his economic development package. Our coalition continues to work closely with the Legislature to find a way to restore full funding.

Despite these actions and the broad show of support, it continues to be uncertain whether the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund will get fully recapitalized. It requires aggressive legislative action every few years to find a significant appropriation and keep the program operating because there is no dedicated annual funding source. During the recession, the fund drew down quite slowly, but as development projects got back online in 2012, the pent-up demand depleted the remaining $18 million very rapidly. Going forward, MassDevelopment hopes to draw down an average of $12 million per year.

The Brownfields Redevelopment Fund is a relatively modest investment that yields significant results for Massachusetts. Many of the sites receiving funding are municipally-owned properties that have been mothballed, requiring assessment and clean-up before any private investment will take even a passing glance. Given the preponderance of brownfields in low-income and minority communities, capitalizing the fund is a matter of economic and environmental justice. Since it targets older industrial areas, the brownfields fund also represents one of the state’s main economic development tools for Gateway Cities.

MassDevelopment has proven to be an effective administrator of the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, turning $60 million dollars in past appropriations into $78 million worth of funding. This is because they have recouped some of the funds invested in successful projects through loans that revolve back into the fund for new awards and they have also generated interest on the capital.

Another benefit of the fund is leveraging federal dollars. Massachusetts has historically received more than its share of federal brownfields funding because points are awarded for having a local and state match.

Our leaders on Beacon Hill will have to make many tough decisions in this year’s budget, but recapitalizing the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund should be a priority. Our region’s competitiveness depends on creating great places that attract people and investment, and many brownfields projects can help anchor a community’s transformation.

Massachusetts residents can reach out to their state legislators and encourage them to make investing in the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund a priority. Our website has lots of information about the fund and the projects it has helped bring to fruition in its 16-year history.

Meet the Author
Let’s leverage the abandoned and underutilized spaces that drove our economic success in the 20th century to house the workforce, build the parks, and create the jobs that will keep the Commonwealth competitive in the 21st century.

André Leroux is executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.