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Reviving Michigan’s Brownfields

New economic chemistry dissolves old pollution problem

November 10, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
and Mac McClelland
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Former Mayor John Logie (left) and Former Governor John Engler (right)

Much of Michigan’s success with growing jobs and homes on land once occupied by lifeless factories comes from two strong-willed men joined by a common purpose.

The first was Independent Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie, a lawyer and land use expert faced with a maddening obstacle to redeveloping the state’s second-largest city: It simply cost too much to clean up abandoned industrial sites. The other was Republican Governor John M. Engler, a lower-tax, less-government, anti-regulatory, movement conservative dedicated to helping business.
Mayor Logie and Governor Engler began their terms in 1991; each won election by touting the power of government to encourage economic development. Both were able to sort through complexity and find simple and effective solutions. Both also described the state’s brownfields problem as one of “burdensome” regulation hurting business and job growth. Their three-fold solution:

First, change the cleanup health standards by allowing trace levels of contamination to remain on redeveloping property. The allowable levels would vary depending on property use; a site destined to be a schoolyard faced stricter cleanup standards than, say, one hosting a manufacturing plant.

Second, change liability provisions and “polluter pays” principles so that entrepreneurs gutsy enough to buy and redevelop brownfield sites would not pay for problems they did not cause. That enabled developers to renovate contaminated property while regulatory and legal processes unfolded, rather than waiting while lengthy and contentious legal battles ensued.

Third, grant developers access to state funds, tax breaks, and other publicly managed incentives to help finance brownfield redevelopments.

The state Legislature changed the cleanup law in 1994 and passed the brownfield redevelopment financing act in 1996. The changes triggered furious debate over releasing industrial companies from liability and the health risks of higher contamination levels.

Up-North Successes and Opportunities
But even as the controversy continued, an unmistakable result emerged: The changes to cleanup laws and the addition of financial incentives provided a crucial economic boost to the state’s cities. Today, brownfield incentives are responsible for $3.8 billion in new investment, primarily in Michigan cities, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. The state counts 13,700 new jobs established as a result of such investments. According to the Northeast Midwest Institute, developers have built more than 1,500 homes, apartments, and condominiums on former Michigan brownfield sites since 1997.
Traverse City and Mason County have led the way in brownfield redevelopment in northern Michigan. As of 2004, Traverse City had netted more than $27 million in state brownfield redevelopment grants, loans, and tax incentives, more than any other city in Michigan. A handful of other Up North communities, including East Jordan and Frankfort, have also staged successful downtown revitalizations by using brownfield incentives.

But, those exceptions aside, northwestern Michigan has not been as involved in the brownfield resurgence sweeping the state as it could or should be. Granted, the primary target of the program is large urban centers with extensive contamination and abandoned buildings. However, the brownfield program’s incentives are available for any contaminated property that goes through an approval process.

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