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Brownfields a tool in local economic growth

Downtown Grand Rapids
Rachel Kramer | CC BY 2.0

There’s been a lot of development in Grand Rapids lately. Some of those can be attributed to brownfield redevelopment – a financially-based incentive which can help turn contaminated or neglected buildings into new residential and business sites across the city.  WGVU News Intern Kayla Tucker explores the process.

"Brownfield redevelopment is really an urban development tool in Grand Rapids and the vast majority of the projects that you see in the city are brownfield redevelopment projects."

That’s Grand Rapids Economic Development Coordinator Jonathan Klooster. He says there are 15 brownfield projects currently underway in Grand Rapids.

These include a 12-story building at 20 East Fulton, additional construction at Founder’s Brewery - and the development of the New Holland Brewery on Bridge Street.

But what is a brownfield? Susan Wenzlick of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality defines them.

"A brownfield can be a site that’s contaminated, or it can be a site that’s just blighted and ugly and functionally obsolete."

Wenzlick says the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids is a prime example of a brownfield in action.

Old manufacturing facilities used to reside on the property, along with underground storage tanks that left gasoline and fill material. About 52,000 tons of contaminated soil was taken from the property to the landfill.

"In terms of the way a community looks and feels, you don’t want to have a bunch of falling down, old, burned out, vacant buildings in your community," Wenzlick says. "You’d rather have them redeveloped and vibrant and creating jobs and bringing in tax dollars and not being a threat to public health and safety."

According to Klooster, $1.2 billion in brownfield projects have been completed in Grand Rapids since 1998. The DEQ offers developer incentives for these properties, as they cost more to redevelop.

These can be seen in grants and the use of tax increment financing - where the difference in property taxes before and after development is reimbursed to developers.

This money is intended to cover the cost of public infrastructure improvements. Activities include demolition, environmental cleanup and site preparation.

Wenzlick says these financial incentives play an important role.

"The incentives help make the cost more equal," she says. "So, a developer can look at the greenfield site or the brownfield site, and the brownfield site wouldn’t cost any more to develop than the greenfield site."

At the Downtown Market, the incentives included a $1 million brownfield grant from the DEQ to help remove contamination from the property.

Today, the market includes a 23-vendor hall with two full-service restaurants.

Wenzlick says the surrounding area has seen increased development and vibrancy since it opened in 2013. 

Kayla Tucker is a radio news intern at WGVU. She is a student at Grand Rapids Community College, where she is the Editor-in-Chief of The Collegiate newspaper.
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