ANDERSON, Ind. – Amid the vast open spaces that are the former General Motors plants, two city of Anderson buses could be seen rumbling through the overgrown weeds and cracked concrete.
In these areas that have rarely experienced movement for several years, two dozen people poured out of the buses to get a good look at the properties and learn about their potential.
Local officials said they are excited that companies have been showing interest in some of those brownfields – former industrial or commercial properties that have been left vacant and need or are undergoing environmental cleanups.
The visitors included local government officials, as well as representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Manufacturing Alliance of Communities, a national coalition of local government leaders working to revitalize former factory and manufacturing sites. Those officials, and others, were gathering Tuesday for a full-day discussion on the challenges that auto communities face, and how to move forward.
Mayor Kevin Smith, interim economic development director Greg Winkler and Gary McKinney, the city's brownfield redevelopment specialist, led the tour of the former Guide Lamp property along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 29th Street and through several former GM plants along Scatterfield Road.
"My impression is that while they look like wastelands, the truth is the community has organized very carefully for a number of years to figure out environmental conditions and the potential uses," said Matt Ward, a representative with Manufacturing Alliance of Communities who is in town from Washington, D.C.
Winkler said that several prospects are interested in the former Guide plant, but did not disclose names. In the best-case scenario, the property could be sold as early as September and a company could build a large building and bring a number of jobs, he said.
David Lloyd, the director of the Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization, which is part of the EPA, said the biggest challenges that former auto communities face is having to prioritize the vacant sites and determine which to work on first. Another challenge is to put together partnerships between federal, state and local agencies and private industries to secure funding for cleanups and redevelopment.
"Anderson has done a good job," Lloyd said. "They are already marketing these sites."
Lloyd said the EPA's brownfield and land revitalization office's main goal is to provide funding and technical assistance to communities to help clean up sites like the former GM properties.
The reason they take on that job is to improve the environment and make properties safe. Those cleaned-up properties then draw companies and jobs to the area.
"Our philosophy is that environmental protection equals economic health and growth," Lloyd said.
A lot of communities have been afraid to acknowledge their brownfield sites, but they should see them as opportunities, he said.
"Right now they don't bring much tax revenue, but once they get back to good use they will," he said. "Communities are starting to embrace them."