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An old rail car plant in Huntington, a 1920s ice house in Hinton and a World War II-era industrial structure in Morgantown are among projects in West Virginia communities that share in $3.3 million worth of brownfield grant funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA defines a brownfield as “a property for which the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” The agency estimates there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the United States.

The EPA Brownfields Program began in 1995 and has provided nearly $1.6 billion in grants to assess and clean up contaminated properties and return blighted properties to productive use. To date, brownfields investments have leveraged more than $31 billion in cleanup and redevelopment. Over the years, the relatively small investment of federal funding leveraged more than 160,000 jobs from both public and private sources,

Grants awarded by EPA’s Brownfields Program provide communities with an opportunity to transform contaminated sites into community assets that attract jobs and achieve broader economic development outcomes, while taking advantage of existing infrastructure. For example, brownfields grants have been shown to:

n Increase local tax revenue: A study of 48 brownfields sites found that an estimated $29 million to $97 million in additional local tax revenue was generated in a single year after cleanup. This is two to seven times more than the $12.4 million EPA contributed to the cleanup of these sites.

n Increase residential property values: Another study found that property values of homes near revitalized brownfields sites increased between 5 and 15 percent following cleanup.

In the 2020 round of EPA brownfields funding, West Virginia’s grant recipients were:

City of Huntington, ACF Assessment Grant — $350,000

Once Huntington’s Highlawn neighborhood was a beehive of activity, where busy factories employed hundreds of workers who churned out a variety of products. Today, the neighborhood — located between Marshall University, the Ohio River and the city’s downtown — is mostly home to empty buildings and weed-infested vacant lots.

Now the City of Huntington is pushing forward with an ambitious revitalization plan for the blighted neighborhood.

The plan, explained Cathy Burns, executive director of the Huntington Municipal Development Authority (HMDA), focuses on entrepreneurship, job creation, strategic neighborhood reinvestment and redefining the city as a destination for arts, culture and a rich quality of life.

It proposes a series of distinct development zones, each anchored by a major use, including a hotel and conference center, signature public spaces, high-tech research and production facilities and even a long-proposed Marshall baseball stadium.

The centerpiece of the plan is the former ACF Industries plant. Founded at the city’s birth in 1871, the plant long manufactured and repaired rail cars. It has sat idle for the past 20 years. The city acquired the 37-acre property earlier this year.

“The old ACF plant will never again return to full-scale manufacturing. It’s just not in the cards,” said Huntington Mayor Steve Williams. “But it’s a huge chunk of land adjacent to the Marshall campus and an ideal spot for a mixed-use development that could include not only new Marshall facilities, but housing, retail shops, offices and other businesses.”

Preliminary environmental tests on the ACF property revealed no significant environmental contamination, Burns said. Now, the new $350,000 EPA grant will help the city develop a reuse and cleanup plan for the former plant property. She noted that the planning consultants working on the redevelopment scheme say much of the old rail car plant must be demolished but some parts can be revamped and put to new uses.

New River Gorge Regional Development Authority (NRGRDA, Hinton, Cleanup Grant — $442,320

The grant funds will be used to clean up the former Hinton Ice House property on Commercial Avenue in Hinton. Formerly known as Silo Ice, the three-story brick building was built in the 1920s and was long used as an ice storage/cold storage facility.

The building has been closed for several years and is contaminated with heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The cleanup at the property will include the excavation of contaminated soils, which will be removed from the site and disposed of at a permitted landfill.

The City of Hinton has designed a multi-use redevelopment plan for the area that includes a water park and an amphitheater, stores and shops.

West Virginia Land Stewardship Corporation (WVLSC), Morgantown, Cleanup Grant — $500,000

The WVLSC will use the grant funds to prepare a 2.31-acre parcel in the Morgantown Industrial Park for redevelopment. Informally known as the “Smokestacks Property,” the site was part of a U.S. Government Ordinance and Manufacturing Plant in World War II.

The 2.3 acres housed a water treatment facility and a coal-fired power plant with four 20-story smokestacks. It’s contaminated with mercury and inorganic contaminants and hasn’t been used in more than 50 years. Despite its prime location, the high cost of removing the structure and handling the site’s environmental issues made private redevelopment unfeasible.

After acquiring the property, the WVLSC conducted environmental assessments using funds from a previous EPA Brownfields Assessment Grant, which allowed it to qualify for the new cleanup grant.

Brooke-Hancock Region XI Regional Planning and Development Council (BHJ), Weirton and Wellsburg, West Virginia, and Steubenville and Mingo Junction, Ohio, Assessment Grant — $600,000.

BHJ Executive Director Mike Paprocki said the $600,000 grant is the maximum amount available through the EPA’s Brownfields Coalition Assessment Grant program.

Paprocki said the grant will be used to conduct eleven Phase I assessments of properties, perform eight Phase II assessments and develop nine cleanup plans.

Phase I assessments involve a review of records and inspections for a site to determine the extent of contamination, if any, at a former industrial or commercial site. Phase II assessments involve more physical work and can include the collection of soil and water samples, groundwater monitoring and inspection of floor drains and catch basins.

Working with the Jefferson County Port Authority and the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, the council has compiled information for about 35 sites in Brooke, Hancock and Jefferson counties.

They include Frontier Crossings in Weirton, where the Frontier Group is involved in an environmental cleanup of about 250 acres of former Weirton Steel property; unused land at the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel plant in Mingo Junction that new owner JSW Steel has interest in developing, and a few vacant commercial buildings in the downtown Wellsburg business district.

Cornerstone Community Development Corporation, Huntington, Cleanup Grant — $462,590

For more than 40 years, from its opening in 1926 until it closed in 1970, The Prichard was one of downtown Huntington’s leading hotels.

The late Frederick C. Prichard boasted he spent more than $1 million to build and furnish his 13-story hotel. It had 300 rooms, each with its own bathroom, a rarity in hotels of that day. It also had 14 private dining rooms, a restaurant and a ballroom.

Over the years, the old hotel had some famous guests. In 1949, singing cowboy Gene Autry stayed there when he was in town for a show. His horse, Champion, slept elsewhere. But a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs was an honored guest in 1956 when the cast of television’s “Today” show came to Huntington. John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jackie, and his brother, Ted, all stayed at The Prichard during JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign.

After the hotel closed, the building housed offices, apartments and storefronts. In recent years, it’s been vacant and is steadily deteriorating. Now the new EPA grant will fund a cleanup of the old hotel and restore it for use as housing.

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Central Kanawha River Valley, Assessment Grant — $300,000

The DEP will use the grant funds to access brownfields in a 30-mile corridor of the Kanawha Valley, from Nitro to Belle. The corridor includes four unincorporated communities and four municipalities, including Charleston. The properties are to be assessed for potential petroleum and hazardous substance impacts resulting from the downsizing of the valley’s chemical manufacturing industry.

“At the height of the chemical manufacturing industry in 1954, 38,000 people in West Virginia were employed in the business,” said Casey Korbini, deputy director of the WVDEP Division of Land Restoration. “As of 2010, only 10,000 jobs remained, and that number has remained largely unchanged over the past decade.

“These job losses are especially significant due to lost wages and taxes, with the current average regional chemical worker’s wage at $75,450 per year,” said Korbini. “Because most of these jobs require a high level of education and training, the decline also resulted in a ‘brain drain.’ The lost chemical industry jobs have also accounted for an estimated 56,000 additional job losses (2 to 1 ratio) from support businesses, with most of these from the small business sector.”

WVDEP is engaged with local partners to identify potential brownfield sites for assessment and redevelopment. Those partners include Advantage Valley, the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center, the Charleston Area Alliance, Charleston Main Streets, the City of South Charleston, the Nitro Development Authority, the Town of Belle and the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center at Marshall University.

West Virginia University Research Corporation, Grafton, Assessment Grant — $300,000

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was a fundamental part of Grafton’s economy for nearly a century. In the heyday of rail passenger service, Grafton was a busy crossroads, with as many as 32 trains a day arriving or departing the town’s B&O depot, perhaps the biggest and most elaborate ever built in West Virginia. But railroad ridership declined drastically in the years after World War II. That decline hit Grafton hard.

The town’s B&O depot saw its last train leave in 1971. The grand Willard Hotel, erected adjacent to the depot, checked out its last guests decades ago. Both buildings have long stood vacant, defying all previous efforts to restore them and put them to new use.

Now an EPA brownfield grant will be used to conduct environmental site assessments and reuse planning activities in the region. Assessment activities will focus on Grafton’s downtown historic district and several former industrial sites along the Tygart River. Priority sites for the assessments include the B&O depot, the Willard Hotel and an abandoned glass factory.

Braxton County Development Authority, Gassaway and Sutton, Assessment Grant — $300,000

Only the first 10 miles have been opened thus far, but when completed, the new Elk River Trail will run for 73 miles from Falling Rock, outside of Clendenin in Kanawha County, through Clay County to Duck, and on into Braxton County.

According to BCDA executive director Terrell Ellis, the new $300,000 EPA brownfields grant will be used to assess potential environmental problems at abandoned, vacant and dilapidated properties adjacent to the trail.

“The communities located along the trail have come together and drawn up an inventory of 57 properties that might qualify for assessment,” Ellis said. “If we find one of those has a good redevelopment potential, we can then seek an EPA cleanup grant to remedy what environmental concerns have been detected. The ultimate goal is to show investors that a property has a ‘clean bill of health’ and is ready for reuse.”

She noted that some of the sites in line for assessment are riverbank locations and thus, once developed, could provide new access to the Elk, increasing its recreational potential.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.

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