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Cumberland refocuses brownfield list on complex sites

By , - Last modified: August 17, 2012 at 9:37 AM

Cumberland County officials and business groups are looking more closely at vacant industrial and commercial sites for strategies to redevelop such brownfields, but some officials say that effort needs a finer focus on properties even the private sector is having trouble with.

Last year, Cumberland County groups began talking about a comprehensive brownfield inventory that mapped out large vacant sites. The aim was to work with municipalities, real estate professionals and other businesses to reuse older properties, which would slow sprawl and protect open spaces.

"We have (businesses) who may want to come in and start from scratch," said county Commissioner Jim Hertzler. "I'm supportive of business development, but we should tend to the garden we have."

That means working with the private sector to promote brownfield redevelopment should be a priority as businesses expand or move to Cumberland County, he said.

But as the discussion continues nearly a year later without a list, some people are saying the effort needs refining.

"It reduces the scope from the entire universe to just the (properties) that have problems," said Kirk Stoner, Cumberland County's Planning Department director.

No one wants to duplicate what's already done by the private sector, plus those properties with underlying issues could be eligible for government assistance in fixing them, he said.

At this time, the county does not have an estimate of how many properties could end up on its redevelopment list, Stoner said.

In the past, the county applied for funding just to get a list of brownfields started, but no funding was awarded in the competitive grant process, Stoner said. If they first identify a select list of properties that are priorities for economic development, they might have a better chance at receiving some of those grants.

Even with focusing efforts on those sites most worthy of grant assistance, the process could still be long until a significant list is developed, other officials said. The county needs to work with municipal officials to help identify properties, then speak with the owners about working together.

"Let's first get a handle on the scope of the problem, and then we can find the resources to incentivize the redevelopment of these sites," said Ed LeClear, community development director for the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority.

The authority is part of the inventory discussions and has some experience with similar redevelopments. It worked out a deal with New York-based RE Invest Solutions to put the deed for the former Carlisle Tire & Wheel property in the authority's name so that redevelopment money could be used to help clean up the site. RE Invest plans to redevelop the former tire factory into commercial office buildings.

However, once you identify properties that are ripe for redevelopment, the question becomes whether owners are receptive to being on the list — or even receiving county assistance, he said.

"There's some sensitivity, because you're talking about private property," LeClear said.

Many sites that have repelled redevelopment have environmental issues, said Matt Tunnell, senior vice president of Harrisburg-based Greenworks Development.

Greenworks has made a business of redeveloping vacant industrial and commercial sites, including sites in the city for Harrisburg Area Community College's midtown campus. Tunnell also is chairman of the Dauphin County Redevelopment Authority. Last year, it completed a similar list of properties for redevelopment.

When there are no environmental issues with a site, it might not have access to basic infrastructure, such as water and sewer services, or even adequate transportation and electrical needs, Tunnell said.

"A lot of time, it's the fear of the unknown that can stop a developer or an investor from moving forward with a property," he said.

In that way, such lists can help brownfield property owners unload an asset that is no longer productive by simply solving the problems that are keeping it from posting a "SOLD" sign.

"Sometimes that process helps owners understand the issues with their site and how that's preventing them from selling it," Tunnell said.

The extra efforts to assist the business community in property redevelopment can't really hurt, some groups said.

"I think it's one of those things where, really, can you market a property too much?" said Sherri Pursel, the government affairs director for the East Pennsboro Township-based Greater Harrisburg Association of Realtors.

That could be the difference between properties that continue to sit vacant and those that again become an important part of the county's economy.

"We can help move these places that have been sitting idle for a long time," Hertzler said.

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