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Fields of dreams

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Detroit will play host to next year's National Brownfield Conference, an event billed as the most "comprehensive conference focused on cleaning up and redeveloping abandoned, underutilized and potentially contaminated properties."

We should have plenty of field trips available for the several thousand attendees, should they want to leave the confines of Cobo Center. Contaminated industrial wastelands and blighted sites are in no short supply around here.

But wait, don't joke. Listen to Douglas Brown, a conference organizer and director of business development at ASTI Environmental, a Brighton company that does site assessment, inspection and remediation.

"The market is screaming for investment," he says. "Brownfields are an awesome economic magnet." That's why, at least in part, Detroit gets to host the national conference.

Brown's company's brownfield division can barely keep up with demand from investors outside the metro area, he says, and the brownfields conference will offer a "trading" session where developers, financers and government types can hash out deals. Brown expects dozens of deals to be made there for Michigan properties whether they're publicly or privately owned.

Part of the attraction is Michigan's law allowing new property owners — private individuals and companies — to assess a property and perform what the state calls a "baseline environmental assessment" if the property is contaminated.

"That's basically ... making sure that there's not exposure to the contaminants. They don't necessarily have to clean up a site, they just have to make it safe for people to use it," Ron Smedley, the brownfield redevelopment coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

If the numbers of assessments done by the state DEQ are any indication, Brown is right about the attractiveness of sites to developers. Smedley says the number of baseline environmental assessments, or BEAs, submitted to DEQ have risen nearly every year since 1995, growing from 157 then to 1,153 last year. Detroit has accounted for between 4 and 11 percent of the assessments.

"The level of BEAs submitted to the DEQ indicates that new owners are purchasing — and potentially redeveloping — properties," he says.

Unlike many other states, says John Kerr, director of economic development and grant management for the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, Michigan law allows developers and local governments to use a variety of financing — including tax increment financing — from state and local governments on brownfield sites.

"It makes it easier for the investor to come in and work on a challenging property and also to receive incentives to help them do it. It just gives brownfields a better chance of redeveloping," he says.

And after the brownfields are developed, the investors can move on to the train station. News Hits can hope, right?

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com

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