EPA Chief Praises Youngstown Brownfield Projects

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler hailed his agency’s brownfield grant program as its “crown jewel” for helping communities revitalize Wednesday.

It was those grants that helped clean up the site that is today the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre and the Raymond John Wean Foundation Park.

Since 2017, U.S. EPA has awarded 21 brownfield grants to communities and nonprofit organizations in Ohio, totaling more than $7.7 million, Wheeler said, including a $200,000 brownfield assessment grant awarded to the city in 2017 that was used in part to assess the “Wick 6” properties, a row of former car dealerships along Wick Avenue north of downtown. 

As part of a multistate tour, Wheeler visited the sites with local officials, including U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson and Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown.

“We’re not looking in the rear view mirror anymore. We’re looking forward,” Brown said, noting that the city utilized state CleanOhio program funds to contain contaminants at the amphitheater and park property. 

The sites offered examples of investments made at the federal, state and local levels, said. Johnson, R-6 Ohio. Youngstown isn’t in his district but many of his constituents work in the city or come to dine at its restaurants or attend events at venues such as the amphitheater, he said. 

“This is what you can do when you partner together, when you put politics aside and you focus on the glass being half full instead of half empty,” Johnson said. 

Such EPA grants permit environmental assessments and cleanups at brownfield sites as well as environmental job training for residents. 

“Historically, the returns on investments for brownfield grants are some of the highest for any federal program,” Wheeler said. “One study found that property values of homes near revitalized brownfield sites increased in value between 5% to 15% following cleanup.” 

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson and Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown talk at the site of the former “Wick 6” car dealerships. Brownfield funds were used to pay for an assessment of the sites.

Other studies have shown that every dollar of brownfield grant funds invested in a property encouraged another $17 in private and public funds, he added. Since the brownfield funding program was established in 1995, $32 billion in cleanup and redevelopment funds have been leveraged across the country, leading to 167,000 jobs in cleanup, construction and redevelopment, Wheeler said. 

“This program is about working with communities,” he said. “It’s about leveraging federal resources to help identify, clean and assess problems at the community level in order to allow the communities to take these abandoned sites, redevelop them and turn them around and for a cleaner environment for all citizens everywhere.”   

One of EPA’s primary goals should President Donald Trump win reelection is turning more toward what he called “community environmentalism,” or working with federal, state and local government to improve the environment, transform communities and look at the environmental problems each community has.

One of the initiatives being considered as part of that focus is taking several of its grant programs and consolidating them into a single master grant, with a more streamlined application, that communities could apply for to address all of their environmental needs at once rather than on a piecemeal basis, he said.   

“We’ve got to take those grant programs and condense them and combine them into a shorter process that is more conducive to mayors and helping communities apply for the funds that they need from the federal government,” he said. “That’s something that I think will encourage communities to look holistically at their environmental issues and also encourage EPA employees to look more holistically.”

Nikki Posterli, Youngstown’s director of community planning and economic development, said she likes the concept. 

“Consolidating the process to make it quicker and cleaner and smoother so that we can benefit faster is a great idea,” she said.

Pictured: Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler tours the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre with Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.