MARQUETTE - As many officials in the city of Marquette continue to focus on planning for the city's future, one local body is working to erase the grittier parts of the past.
The Marquette Brownfield Redevelopment Authority - resurrected in 2008 after years of local inactivity and shifting state laws - is a seven-member body established to promote the revitalization of the city's distressed properties, many of which have contaminated industrial histories.
"Our role in the city is to find brownfield properties, to market brownfield properties to developers, to be a conduit for developers that are interested in a property that may or may not be brownfield," MBRA Chairwoman Carol Vining Moore said.
The resurgence of the Marquette Brownfield Redevelopment Authority in recent years has contributed to some successful redevelopment of former industrial property, including Founders Landing on the former south rail yard, shown in the 1940s when it was an active railroad operation. (Photo courtesy of Superior View Studio)
This undated photo shows two of the bulk storage tanks that along with several others were perched along the shore of Lake Superior in Marquette for many years. The area has since been redeveloped into Founders Landing and the Hampton Inn, which opened this past summer, sits near where the tank farm was. (Journal file photo)
Other sites in the city still need attention, such as the former Cliffs Dow site where wood tar oozes out of a ditch dug in July 2011. (Journal file photo)
A brownfield is a piece of property that has excessive amounts of contamination or one that is deemed to be blighted or functionally obsolete.
Since the board reconvened a few years ago, brownfield redevelopment discussions have become commonplace in city government; the most visible achievement of the MBRA is Founders Landing, a multi-building hotel, condominium and commercial development along the Marquette lakeshore.
The area where the new buildings now sit was once Marquette's south rail yard, a hub for trains and home to a collection of old bulk storage tanks.
If a property is deemed to be a brownfield, as the Founders Landing property was, a developer can apply to be reimbursed, through the abatement of state or federal taxes, for additional work that is necessary to build on a brownfield site.
Often, this work includes environmental remediation and demolition or renovation of obsolete structures.
And while that may seem like a hassle many developers would avoid, Moore said brownfields are often the most sought-after properties.
"It is more work in many ways, but a lot of times, brownfields sites are the most attractive for building, if you think about it," Moore said.
The sites, many of which are former industrial locations, are often situated along the water or in the heart of a city.
One such location in Marquette can be found at 857 W. Washington Street, the home of a former industrial bakery.
Recently, Marquette's Veridea Group has taken steps to use a brownfield designation in creating a $31 million commercial, retail and residential development on the site, which had been deemed functionally obsolete and was thus eligible for brownfield status.
Through the brownfield designation, Veridea will be reimbursed for millions of dollars.
Developers are reimbursed through the creation of special tax districts that freeze taxes at pre-development levels for a set period of time. During that period, additional revenues - from increased taxable value due to development - go to the MBRA and are typically directed back to the developer as reimbursements or to a revolving loan fund.
"We use that money for our operation costs," Moore said. "The second thing we use it for is we help developers."
The resurrected MBRA was so new when the Founders Landing development was proposed a few years back that the board had to sell bonds to begin reimbursing the developers.
Moore acknowledges that the MBRA was taking a risk by bonding to support a future development and similar efforts have failed in other parts of the state.
In the end, though, Founders Landing helped to kick-start the MBRA, and as increased tax revenues continue flowing in from the development, Moore said the authority has been able to establish a fund balance and recently hired a part-time executive director.
"When we have a treasury, we will have that money there so we won't have to borrow money," she said.
That money will be used to market new brownfield sites to developers and to educate both the board members and the public about brownfields.
And despite the new developments, prospective brownfields still abound in Marquette.
The roundhouse property, an old rail facility located near Seventh Street; the old Cliffs Dow site, where charcoal, methanol, acetic acid, wood creosote and other chemicals were once produced and where underground channels of wood tar still exist; and a still-undeveloped parcel at Founders Landing are among the possible brownfield sites Moore said she would like to market to possible developers.
Now that the MBRA is getting its feet on the ground, Moore said she hopes to travel to national brownfield conferences, where she can pitch Marquette's properties directly to developers.
According to Moore, everyone ultimately benefits.
"In a sense, the city doesn't ever lose any money. They're not really losing, because in the end, it benefits them a great deal," she said. "The direct benefit is that the city does reap additional tax dollars in the end and that's going to be there for many many years to come. And they have beautiful buildings and functional pieces of property."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.