Vacant and abandoned properties have long plagued cities across the country. Along with these blighted properties come health and safety threats, increased crime, decreased property values and higher costs for local governments.
The approach to fixing distressed properties varies, but the most desired outcome is to return the property to productive use, helping revitalize cities, stimulate economic growth and improve the overall quality of life for residents. These initiatives can be accomplished through strong collaborations, flexible funding solutions, determination and patience.
Rockford, Ill., a medium-sized city located about an hour and a half northwest of Chicago, is seeing signs of transformation to its downtown. There has been a collaboration brewing for the last couple years, led by local officials and organizations looking to return Rockford to its former prominence.
This June, a former vacant manufacturing facility located along the Rock River, highlighted in the January issue of R&R, will open its doors as the UW Health Sports Factory, a state-of-the-art indoor sports complex.
The Sports Factory will play host to a variety of sporting events, including amateur sports tournaments. The venue can accommodate 450 events per year, including 30 tournaments, and is projected to bring in $10 million of revenue annually. This hardcourt megaplex will be able to house 8 basketball courts and 16 volleyball courts, making it one of the largest facilities in the nation. This is one of many formerly vacant sites the city has focused on for redevelopment of the riverfront area.
Another piece of the puzzle to redevelop the Rockford riverfront was the dilapidated Tapco building located in the core of some of the downtown’s major development projects. The Tapco site, purchased by the city of Rockford in 2010 after the 130,000-square foot, six-story building, had been left vacant after a decline in the textile industry. By the turn of the century, the building had become a major safety threat and liability for the city with concrete from the building falling on busy S. Main St. This building was constructed in 1907 and used for various industrial processes, including a coal-powered electrical plant.
Notably, the building was originally the Burson Knitting Co., lead by a pioneer in manufacturing and textiles named William Burson, a man who invented the first grain binder, harvester, the first automatic knitting machine, and the first machines to produce the seamless sock and hosiery. In fact, the first socks produced by automatic machine came from Rockford in 1872.
Situated across the Rock River from the UW Health Sports Factory, the Tapco site is also adjacent to Davis Park, a festival venue hosting numerous summertime events. The Tapco site is also adjacent to the Amerock building, a former manufacturing building slated to be redeveloped into a $68.5 million hotel and conference center.
In 2012, to prevent possible injury and property damage, the city closed the sidewalks and a lane of traffic with barricades. Moving forward, the goals for the building and site became clearer: Eliminating blight, ensuring health and safety, providing support to surrounding downtown urban restoration projects, and facilitating redevelopment of the property into productive end use were priorities.
Should It Stay, Or Go?
In order to redevelop the site, the city of Rockford called on Fehr Graham, a local environmental and engineering firm, to provide an environmental assessment of the site. Fehr Graham conducted a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) and Phase II ESA on the Tapco site, ultimately discovering lead and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon (PNA) impacts, requiring remediation. Once identified, the decision-making process shifted to determining how to remove the contaminants, and the funding mechanisms needed to accomplish the task at hand.
The city and Fehr Graham worked side-by-side to determine if the building should remain intact or be demolished in order to remove the contaminated soil beneath the building. There were a variety of end-use solutions considered for the property, but in the end demolition and removal was the most cost effective and environmentally sound solution.
The decision to demolish the building also created more flexibility in the end use of the property— a decision that would become a key component in the future developments of the adjacent Davis Park and Amerock building. The decision to demolish the building was approved by US EPA representative Keary Cragan after inspecting the Tapco building with Wayne Dust, Planning Administrator with the city of Rockford.
Funding Outlay Multi-faceted
In order to fund the remediation efforts needed to demolish the building and clean up the site, the City of Rockford combined five different funding sources totaling over $1.28 million. The combination of the different funding opportunities reduced the hard match dollars for the entire project to less than 10% of the total project. Below is a breakdown of the funding sources:
|1.||US EPA Brownfield Clean Grant||$200,000|
|2.||US EPA Revolving Loan Fund||$697,000|
|3.||Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) RiverEdge Cleanup Grant||$77,000|
|4.||Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) RiverEdge Grant||$80,000|
|5.||Local Hard Match Funds||$99,000|
|6.||Soft Match Funds||$127,400|
Total Funding $1,280,400
Dust provided some tips for being successful at funding brownfields projects.
- Be Flexible and Creative – There a number of funding options available, so always be open to the different options available;
- Be Inclusive – Make sure to include your funding partners in the process. Don't go it alone. They are there to help if the project is worthwhile. Dust commented, "We made sure to let the USEPA know what our end goal was and it really made a difference.";
- Communicate the End Goal – Help the funding partner understand what the ultimate end-use goal is in order to communicate the vision for the site. Dust says, "Our consultant helped us match activities to our end goal."
- Be Persistent – Don't give up if one funding source doesn't work. There are always other options for great projects with a solid end-use goal. Continue to work the plan.
Plans Moving Forward In August/September of 2012, the building was successfully demolished and the contaminated soil was transported offsite. The partners involved in this project were flexible in determining site end-use and were determined to create a space which would provide long-term support to the surrounding downtown urban restoration projects of Davis Park and the Amerock building.
Today, the site has improved the image of a once blighted area and has become an extension of Davis Park and provided additional space for the redevelopment of the Amerock building. This past February, the city of Rockford unveiled the Davis Park master plan to community members, which included such features as a café, climbing wall, picnic space and a great lawn with an open canopy stage.
"The key to our downtown transformation has been to be creative with various funding sources, and communicate a vision for how we can blend historic preservation with modern day amenities that can attract economic development and job creation. Environmental funds have been critical to reinventing our downtown," states Jim Ryan, Rockford's City Administrator.
The revitalization of the Tapco site is a great example of what can be accomplished through strong collaborations, determination, patience, flexible funding solutions and solid, long-term site planning.
Joel Zirkle P.G. is principle with Fehr Graham, engineering and environmental firm based in Rockford, Ill.