Abandoned factories, gas stations and asbestos-laden homes are target areas for environmental assessments with a $400,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District. Economic development and environmental hazards may not often be thought of as going hand in hand, but when a prospective commercial or residential developer hears the word “brownfield,” it could turn up a nose, and not just from the stink. “That’s why the program was developed,” said Mary Kemp of the EPA’s Dallas-based Region 6 Brownfields Team. “A lot of developers are hesitant about the cost of a project if it is a brownfield. This program was developed to assess those properties.” Tracee McKenna, director of community development for the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, said the grant will be used for sites in Booneville, Fort Smith, Mulberry and Ozark, equally divided among petroleum and hazardous material sites. In the 15-page grant application, McKenna points out that for Fort Smith a shift in the city came with the construction of Interstate 540 in the 1970s. “Fort Smith’s brownfields arise largely from a shift in population and development from the west side of the city to the east side,” the grant application states. “This shift has left a number of manufacturing facilities that were once the economic center of the community empty and dilapidated.” The housing that was developed around those facilities for the factory workers remains, but residents must commute further for employment. In the late 1970s, the grant application adds, two of Fort Smith’s last remaining glass companies closed. The Harding Glass Company and Radiant Glass Company remain abandoned and are included in Fort Smith’s brownfields inventory. The closing of Whirlpool in 2012 and a loss of over 900 jobs lost was also mentioned in the grant application, but McKenna noted the company has been handling a toxic chemical clean-up. Additional brownfields identified in Fort Smith include old gas stations and auto repair shops, an electric substation, and vacant downtown buildings. Many of these are located in residential areas and near schools. Other brownfields to be assessed in the district with the grant funding include: • Booneville’s Ace Comb Co. and Cargill, which operated in Booneville until March 2008 when a fire destroyed the plant, resulting in the loss of 800 jobs. In addition, Booneville’s brownfields also include former gas stations, and vacant downtown buildings, all near residential areas. • Mulberry’s former gas stations, and vacant downtown buildings, all near residential areas. • Ozark’s former Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. building and former gas stations and auto repair shops. “Like the other targeted communities, Ozark is also facing a declining downtown district plagued with vacant buildings, resulting in a concentrated area for brownfields,” the grant application states. It was the fourth year for McKenna’s team to apply for the national grant, and it was rewritten twice over the years to conform to new guidelines. Contributing to the project were Ashley Garris, Planning District project coordinator, and Sasha Grist, Planning District executive director. Kemp said the assessment grants are usually $400,000, and Region 6 has received three others in the past for district offices in Houma, La., New Orleans, and the Southwest Arkansas Planning and Development District in Magnolia. Kemp said the EPA Brownfield Team is actively talking to the Eastern Arkansas Planning and Development District in Jonesboro to help secure a assessment grant. The development districts in Texarkana and Hot Springs are also applying for brownfields assessment grants, Kemp added. Fort Smith Housing Authority Executive Director Mitch Minnick said the housing authority assisted with grant application by helping find areas that needed to be assessed. “The Housing Authority shared few sites that we have looked at in past that may have environmental issues,” Minnick said.
By John Lovett Times Record firstname.lastname@example.org