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Real estate developers clean up contaminated properties to use for affordable housing, health centers

Posted at 1:44 PM, Jul 11, 2022

In northern Colorado, an old sugar mill has been sitting on a patch of land for more than a century. It's been unused for 40 years. Dick Thomas is the owner.

"In 1982, the sugar company went bankrupt," Thomas said. "And so we ended up with two buildings and no tenant."

It's become a historical relic that artists and vandals visit often.

"I resisted for many years the idea of just tearing the factory down and moving on," Thomas said. "And we really have felt all along, especially my son and I, that it could be repurposed."

Now, Thomas is working with real estate developer Charlie Woolley who specializes in historic preservation, to transform the space into something meaningful. Woolley is the founding president of St. Charles Town Company.

"We've had a bunch of events promoting companies, concert promoters, and that sort of thing through the building," Woolley said. "And I think the community could use a real music venue."

Restaurants, brew pubs, galleries - the creative ideas are endless.

"If you look at the bay depths of some of these bays, they actually are what a hotel block of rooms might look like," Woolley said.

First, it needs to be cleaned up because this old sugar mill is considered a Brownfield property. The Environmental Protection Agency defines a Brownfield site as a property that has been contaminated, whether it be from things such as dry cleaning solvent, asbestos, petroleum hydrocarbons, or lead.

The EPA considers each to be harmful to people and the environment, and properties like these exist all over the U.S.

Stuart Miner heads RE Solutions, a Brownfield acquisition, and development company that aims to clean up these types of sites.

"Brownfield sites are located in portions of the United States where most of the manufacturing occurred," Miner said. "So we buy a property at a substantially discounted price because nobody else wants to buy it and because there is an additional cost associated with developing the property, which is the cost to clean it up."

Miner says a federal environmental statute put in place decades ago caused the real estate business to freeze for many years because people feared the liability of buying a contaminated property.

However, he says it's worth it in his mind to purchase these properties so they can be redeveloped into a useful space.

"There is a property two blocks down the street here which was redeveloped for senior, disabled housing," Miner said. "So it's very low-income seniors, and there's a very large first-floor health center that went back into that site."

High-rise condominiums, townhomes, restaurants, warehouses, the sky is the limit when it comes to redevelopment for these properties.

He says these formerly abandoned properties now offer housing and new job opportunities in places where he often has been historically disadvantaged.

"We historically have cited contaminating uses in poor communities," Miner said. "Now, is it because we didn't care? Or is it because the land value is low enough that putting a landfill or a sewage treatment plant or a smelly factory on the lower-priced land just made economic sense."

Miner says the reason why is up for debate, but he's primarily interested in the solution. As for Thomas and Woolley, they say time is money, and they hope to have the old sugar mill repurposed in two years.

"There's a creative element to it that says, you know, we can do something with this and do something really special," Woolley said.