RG Steel Warren, Ohio

Mahoning Valley Leaders Line Up for $350M in Brownfield Cleanup Funds

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The former Republic Steel site, the Sherman property and a shuttered gasification plant are among the potential targets local economic development leaders envision for a new statewide grant program that would fund brownfield cleanup projects.

The Brownfield Remediation Program will provide nearly $350 million statewide in grants to clean up industrial, commercial, and institutional brownfield sites that are abandoned, idled, or underutilized due to a known or potential release of hazardous substances or petroleum, according to the governor’s office.

The Ohio General Assembly funded the program as part of the 2021 state biennium budget bill. 

“It’s critically important that we help our local communities clean up these crumbling, hazardous brownfield properties to make way for redevelopment and future economic growth,” Gov. Mike DeWine said in announcing the program. “This new program is an investment in the success of every county in our state that will benefit Ohioans today and for generations to come.”

As required by House Bill 110, which established the program, funds will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. At minimum, $1 million is being appropriated for each of Ohio’s 88 counties.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for the Mahoning Valley. The Port has been working with the mayors of each city along the Mahoning River corridor, where there is the highest concentration of brownfields,” said Sarah Lown, public finance director for the Western Reserve Port Authority.

The new state program sets aside more funding than ever to clean up abandoned industrial sites, commercial sites, and demolish abandoned houses, Lown said. The state previously funded brownfield cleanup efforts through the Clean Ohio program but the program was eliminated in 2012. Under that initiative, Mahoning County secured nearly 20 grants and cleaned up much of downtown Youngstown and the abandoned sites along the Mahoning River.

Private sector developers shy away from brownfields because there are too many unknown costs and liabilities, so units of government are best suited to remediate brownfields and get them back into private sector markets for development, Lown said..

Among the sites the port authority likely will seek grant funds s the approximately 200-acre portion of the former Republic Steel property in Trumbull County, part of about 1,000 acres of land that WRPA officials signed documents to accept last month. Other eligible sites include the former gasification plant in Warren, the Sherman property in Youngstown and Campbell, and the Golden triangle area in Warren and Howland and Warren townships.

“There is a list of industrial sites that need to be cleaned up and placed back into productive re-use,” Lown said. “The same is true for the Mahoning and Trumbull County land banks for vacant housing. Every time one of these properties is improved, real estate values increase and new development opportunities arise.”

Removing blighted properties makes a community more attractive, which makes attracting new development easier, said Mike Keys, Warren community development director.

The city is working with the Trumbull County Land Bank to assemble a list of properties to seek grant funding, he said. Among the properties the city likely will seek funds for is the gasification plant Lown referenced, at the corner of South Street and Main Avenue.

The approximately six-acre site runs from Main all the way to the Mahoning River but has “a lot of bad oils in the ground,” he said.

“It’s an ideal corner and it’s just ideal for marketing because of the traffic,” Keys said. “We have had some interest in it, but because of the environmental conditions it’s hard to find a developer willing to do anything on that corner.”

Other sites in Warren include the city-owned building at 418 Main St. that previously housed the city development office, he said. Keys also is looking at some properties now in private hands if he can convince the owners to donate them to the city.

Additionally, he may apply for funds to cover demolition cots of the former St. Joseph Hospital, which the state already has awarded money for asbestos abatement.

“The worst case scenario is we don’t make the cut,” he said.  

Lown said she is working with the land banks in both Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

“True revitalization requires us to respond to vacancy and abandonment in all of its forms,” said Deb Flora, Mahoning County Land Bank executive directo. She anticipates that Mahoning County will be a “strong competitor for additional funding beyond the $1 million on reserve for every county.”

The land bank contacted local governments earlier this year to request information about residential and non-brownfield commercial properties in need of removal or remediation, Flora said. Based on the feedback, it will pursue funding for as many as 1,100 demolitions countywide, and will work with partners including the Port Authority, Economic Action Group, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments and Youngstown State University to identify and assess brownfield sites for remediation.

The Ohio Land Bank Association, on whose board Flora serves, has advocated at the state level for years for residential and commercial demolition funding, Flora said.

“County land banks have significantly reduced the inventory of vacant, abandoned, badly-damaged housing. Think about the composition of neighborhoods decades ago, when corner grocery stores, small offices, gas stations and machine shops were adjacent to family housing,” she said.

Shea MacMillan, manager of business development with the Regional Chamber, hailed Tuesday’s announcement. Chamber officials have eagerly anticipated the program’s rollout since the announcement earlier in the year that the funds would be allocated.

“We don’t see a lot of development and money invested into sites in our market as opposed to some of the neighboring counties that have been successful in putting up spec buildings,” he said “This brings a resource that we could tap into and add to the capital stack for some sites in our market that really will help move the needle.”

Pictured at top: The former RG Steel site in Warren, a prime candidate for brownfield remediation funds.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.