Environmental grants available to kick-start redevelopment

Gulfport Community Development Director Fred Metcalf, at his office, highlights an area along Shore Boulevard being evaluated for potential contamination with money from a federal brownsfields grant.

Gulfport Community Development Director Fred Metcalf, at his office, highlights an area along Shore Boulevard being evaluated for potential contamination with money from a federal brownsfields grant.

Got contamination?

If so, there’s good news: the city of Gulfport has money to help potential redevelopers determine whether a site is contaminated, how badly and how much it might cost to clean up.

The money – $400,000 in the form of a federal grant – aims to assess so-called brownfields, properties whose redevelopment may be complicated by the presence of potential or real hazardous substances. Across Florida and the US abandoned or underused brownfields sites are eyesores that drag down neighborhoods and may threaten the health of their residents.

Miles Ballogg, an engineering consultant to the city of Gulfport, was one of several officials at a public informational meeting Tuesday, February 24 at the Gulfport Neighborhood Center.

“It’s the perception of contamination that many times keeps people from redeveloping,” he said. A property may or not be contaminated, he said, but it’s up to potential buyers to make sure. They shouldn’t take a seller’s word that a property is OK.

Priority for the grant money goes to those considering buying and redeveloping Gulfport land into projects that benefit the community and create jobs, such as parks, health care clinics and affordable housing.

Fred Metcalf, Gulfport’s director of community development, said if a place looks like it may have housed something potentially hazardous, it probably did. Among the more common brownfields sites are old gas stations, auto repair shops, junk yards, dry cleaners, print shops and former landfills.

Current brownfields projects

Detail of a map showing the City of Gulfport’s current brownfields-evaluation projects, including the proposed trail (in yellow) that would link Gulfport to a trail in St. Petersburg via Clam Bayou.

Gulfport’s brownfields grant money specifically targets the 49th Street corridor, but can be used anywhere in the city. No brownfields sites have been identified thus far, Metcalf said, although there are at least 30 on 49th Street that might merit looking into.

The informational session aimed to encourage individual investors to use the funding, which is in the form of a three-year grant awarded in October 2013. The city has already embarked on several projects of its own, including an assessment of the area along Shore Boulevard from 58th Street to the Bert and Walter Williams Pier, which is slated for a beautification program, and along a proposed trail that would link Gulfport to St. Petersburg via Clam Bayou.

Metcalf said officials don’t think there are problems along Shore Boulevard, but are checking “just in case.” The city does not have a history of contamination, although there were some areas of semi- and light-industrial use, he said.

David Vana, who lives part of the year in Gulfport and part in Saranac Lake, NY, has been looking at properties in Gulfport with an eye toward investment. He has a business in New York buying, repairing and selling forest-service observation towers, of which there are many in Florida, he said.

He has been researching the possibility of establishing a storage facility in Gulfport so he attended the meeting.

“You have to know what you’re buying,” he said. “I wanted to learn about brownfields because the term came up several times while I was looking around.”

Gulfport’s federal grant provides funding to evaluate 30 sites to see if there is a contamination problem. There is also money for seven more in-depth assessments, including soil and groundwater testing, and to prepare actual clean-up plans and cost estimates for four sites. Once a site has been determined to be contaminated, investors can tap into other state and federal programs to help pay for the actual clean up.

The brownfields funding is not available for the owners of such properties. Ballogg suggested that people whose property might be contaminated contact an environmental attorney. However, some owners of contaminated properties, such as those who might have inherited or unwittingly purchased them, might qualify for help under federal “innocent landowner” guidelines.

Metcalf said the brownfields money is one more incentive the city can offer to encourage redevelopment.

“It’s a tool to add to our toolbox,” he said.

For more information call Gulfport Community Development Director Fred Metcalf at 727-893-1095 or Florida Department of Environmental Protection Brownfields Coordinator Vicki Sue McGucken at 813-470-5755.

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