Cleaning up hazards at abandoned and otherwise “unloved” properties will help lift entire community, town official says
By Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile.com
Rawlins will receive a $500,000 Brownfields Assessment grant to develop cleanup and revitalization plans for some 20 properties in an effort to remediate environmental and human health hazards while giving the town’s economy a boost.
The grant is part of the Biden administration’s effort to accelerate cleanup of brownfield sites — properties where toxic chemicals and other hazards dissuade redevelopment. The money comes from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and is intended to further federal environmental justice initiatives.
“EPA’s Brownfields Program also advances President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative to direct 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments to disadvantaged communities,” the EPA said in a prepared statement.
Even during recent economic growth that saw Rawlins’ east side flourish with new hotels, gas stations, retail stores and eateries, many “old-town” buildings remained boarded up and otherwise “unloved,” said Pam Thayer, executive director of Rawlins Downtown Development Authority-Main Street.
Liability concerns over asbestos, lead and other hazardous materials keep properties like the old Wyoming Bar and Sunset Motel off prospective buyers’ lists, she said. But with resources to assess and clean up such hazards, those properties — many in prime locations — become assets for business development.
“This will touch a lot of those unloved buildings in the city of Rawlins,” Thayer said. “It will also help make sure we’re taking care of our existing community that has been here through the thick and the thin.”
There are more than 450,000 brownfields in the U.S., according to the EPA, and potentially hundreds in Wyoming.
Rawlins, Dubois, Shoshoni, Laramie, Sheridan, Cheyenne and many other Wyoming towns have enrolled properties in the federal brownfields program, according to federal and state officials. Federal brownfield revitalization efforts in the state have, for example, cleaned up vehicle salvage yards, old hotels, legacy mine facilities and a livestock feed mill.
The Evanston Roundhouse project was awarded brownfields funding, as was the former Acme Power Plant in Sheridan County and the Crook County Museum — formerly the Old Stoney School.
All told, EPA has assessed 108 properties in Wyoming as potential brownfields, according to the agency. Thirty-two designated Wyoming brownfields — more than 750 acres of property — have successfully been remediated for “re-use,” according to EPA’s Brownfield Project Manager Barbara Hansen Benoy.
Because the EPA’s brownfields program is directed toward community revitalization, the agency granted $800,000 to the Wyoming Business Council in 2018 to help Wyoming towns and counties enroll sites in the program.
“Generally speaking, there are many properties and buildings, even in small towns, that can be considered brownfields,” Wyoming Business Council Loan Portfolio Manager John Wendling told WyoFile.
In Rawlins, the $500,000 Brownfields Assessment grant will help fund one of three assessment projects currently in the works, according to Rawlins officials. The effort’s focus is legacy business areas that have not otherwise been on the radar for new investors.
For example, the long abandoned Golden West Motel on West Pine St. is next to established homes. Currently, it’s a blight on the neighborhood, Thayer said. But brownfield revitalization dollars can help clean up hazards, make better use of the property and elevate the value of the neighborhood around it in the process.
The same potential applies to existing and potential brownfield properties in the historic downtown district.
“If we can redevelop [brownfield properties] and put them back on the tax rolls — it’s a win-win,” Thayer said.
Though Wyoming and the EPA continue to work on brownfield redevelopment efforts, the state could further help budget-strapped communities work through the process, Thayer added. County and municipal lobbyists have been asking the Legislature for financial support.
Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie) sponsored House Bill 135 – Cities and towns-abandoned and nuisance buildings earlier this year. The bill failed, but would have provided towns a tax credit “for expenditures to improve abandoned and nuisance buildings.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.