By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LOCKLAND - On one site, an incinerator that once provided steam for Lockland's canal locks pokes above trees and overgrown bushes like the remnant of a forgotten ancient ruin.
Nearby is a large, bowl-shaped plot of dirt and gravel. And not far away, a sprawling, fire-damaged red-brick complex that had housed a mattress factory sits mostly empty, a relic of the industrial past.
Traffic on southbound I-75 (right) drives past a former brownfield site in Lockland (left).
(Glenn Hartong photo)
As bleak as these sites appear today, they and several other chunks of land like them hold the key to Lockland's future. They're former industrial or commercial sites along Interstate 75 that their owners and village officials hope - with the help of state dollars - to transform into revenue-producing business property.
"For the future of Lockland, it means everything," Mayor Jim Brown said. "We've lost so many businesses in the last several years."
Lockland, which also has lost 1,000 of its approximately 5,500 jobs in the past three years, is among the older Hamilton County suburbs pinning futures on what are called brownfields - abandoned, possibly contaminated, industrial or commercial sites. Other communities with brownfield sites include Cincinnati, Norwood, Reading, Lincoln Heights, St. Bernard, Columbia Township and Fairfax in Hamilton County, Middletown and Hamilton in Butler, and Covington and Newport in Northern Kentucky.
Communities across Ohio and the rest of the nation that have been crippled by declining industrial jobs are counting on brownfield redevelopment programs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are more than 400,000 brownfields nationwide. The agency has invested about $700 million in its brownfield program.
Ohio has committed $200 million to brownfield revitalization.
"Brownfields are lost opportunities to use Ohio's most finite resource - its land," said John Magill, director of Ohio's Office of Urban Development. "The brownfield revitalization efforts going on today demonstrate the commitments of cities and other jurisdictions to take advantage of the opportunity to reclaim the land."
The brownfields with good highway access have the best chance of being redeveloped.
"If you have a good location, they won't sit there idle long," said Scott Fennell, senior environmental engineer/scientist at the Northern Kentucky University Center for Applied Ecology. "They're economically viable."
Federal and state financial support also makes brownfield redevelopment more realistic.
"In the big picture, we're on an upward trend as far as government participation in brownfields redevelopment," Fennell said. "We're seeing more and more federal and state funding for these projects."
Norwood, which dove into a financial tailspin when the General Motors plant closed in 1987, has been rebuilding its economy by recycling old industrial and commercial sites.
An 8.5-acre brownfield in Norwood where the American Laundry Machinery Co. once operated has been given new life. Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure recently moved into half of the restored red-brick building on the site. Norwood hopes for similar success with an adjoining 15-acre brownfield.
Rick Dettmer, Norwood community development director, said the challenges of redeveloping brownfield property are much more daunting than developing pristine farmland.
"There are no environmental issues, no older infrastructures, no chopped-up parcels of land, no diversity of ownership that requires sites to be assembled," he said of farmland. "It's night and day."
Reading officials want to capitalize on the presence of the University of Cincinnati's Genome Research Institute and two private pharmaceutical companies, Patheon Inc. and Girindus America Inc., to lure more biotech businesses to an adjoining 15-acre brownfield. A new public library is tentatively planned for a 3-acre brownfield in the vicinity.
"The future payoff of all that will be phenomenal," said Linda Fitzgerald, Reading's economic development director. "We're really looking to stabilize our tax base."
The 35-acre former Ford transmission plant site in Fairfax is Hamilton County's largest brownfield. The Clean Ohio Council awarded a $3 million grant for demolition and cleanup work on that site. A developer plans to build stores and offices there.
After some zoning issues are worked out, the old Ford plant will be torn down. For the village, redeveloping the site could mean 800 to 1,000 new, tax-paying jobs.
"Right now, there are zero jobs there," Fairfax Mayor Ted Shannon said. "That plant's been underutilized for about 30 years."
Lockland has entered a pivotal stage in its economic recovery efforts. The city has received more than $12 million for brownfield revitalization from state and federal grants and other sources.
This year, 70 acres of Lockland's abandoned industrial and commercial property that had been contaminated by hazardous chemicals will be ready for redevelopment. The 15-acre site of the former Stearns & Foster mattress factory - recently damaged by a fire - could be set for re-use as early as next year.
"We've had to turn away a lot of calls from potential developers because we just weren't ready," said Evonne Kovach, Lockland's economic development director. "Now, over the next few years, we'll have a steady stream of land become available."
Village officials see Lockland Commerce Park, owned by L&L Holding Co., as a model for its other brownfields.
Built on a brownfield formerly occupied by the Jefferson Smurfit paper mill, the park opened in 1998 and now has 24 businesses. Only three out of 18 acres are still available for construction.
Almost all of Lockland's brownfields are visible from I-75, a major selling point.
"It's 15 minutes to downtown Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky," said Tim Long, agent for the District Council 12 of the International Union of Painters and Trades. "It's easy for people to get here."
Will Korte, manager of L&L Holding Co., said he recently received a call from a man who saw the commerce park's billboard while stuck in morning traffic on I-75. The man was interested in leasing space for his business.
"By three o'clock that afternoon, he was in my office," Korte said. "We're now negotiating."
Last year, budget woes placed Lockland on the state's "fiscal watch" list.
Brown said redevelopment successes such as Lockland Commerce Park offer the village the best hope of rebounding from its financial doldrums.
"We're slowly getting some jobs back," he said. "But it's a slow process. It's critical for us to keep pushing redevelopment."
What are brownfields?
Brownfields are abandoned, idle or underused industrial or commercial sites that might be contaminated.
Before these sites can be redeveloped, the amount and kind of contamination must be determined. If it is contaminated, the site must be cleaned up.
A brownfield could be as small as a former gas station site or as large as a sprawling industrial complex.
Although the origin of the term "brownfield" is uncertain, the federal government began its brownfield revitalization programs in the early 1990s.
Source: Ohio Department of Development
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