Brownfields or bonanzas? Several factors will guide fate of two prominent downtown sites

August 2nd, 2016

By Kevin Leininger | News-Sentinel

Nine years ago, the city paid $25,000 for an option to buy the 29-acre former home of a scrap metals company for $4.3 million but ultimately decided against it. Whether a still-unreleased assessment of possible contamination on the site influenced the decision remains unclear.

Six years ago, a leading local economic development official openly questioned General Electric's commitment to identifying possible "brownfield" problems on its 31-acre campus after a potential buyer of one of the buildings expressed concern about possible clean-up costs.

Today, both properties — GE just south of an increasingly vibrant downtown and the old OmniSource site just to the north — are for sale and being marketed as potential developmental bonanzas despite the possible presence of icky industrial leftovers.

But a local developer with significant brownfield experience believes the hype is not necessarily unrealistic. Old industrial sites may be more expensive and difficult to redevelop, but economic success is possible if would-be buyers do their homework and negotiate accordingly, Bill Bean insists.

"From a brownfield standpoint, nobody's done as much redevelopment as we have," said Bean, who has had interests in local plants once occupied by firms with such iconic names as Fruehauf, Tokheim, International Harvester and even GE (its old Winter Street facility). "Remediation (of contamination) is just one of the challenges; you're not dealing with pastures or cornfields. But we're also not dealing with a barrel company that went out of business. We're dealing with well-established companies (in GE and the Rifkin family, former OmniSource owners). That's a plus.

"GE spokesman Matt Conkrite said some degree of contamination is typical for a century-old industrial site, but added that GE has regularly removed potentially harmful materials over the years. Some solvents may remain, "but we communicate what we know (to would-be buyers). State and federal environmental laws generally place responsibility for any environmental obligations on past and current property owners as well as tenants or others depending on the circumstances."

"I can say the perceptions of (developing) brownfield sites are often much worse than reality. It's usually very manageable," said Fletcher Moppert of the Zacher Co., which is listing the Rifkins' "North River" property and said interest has been expressed in parcels of 3 to 6 acres for office, retail or mixed use. Moppert, however, would prefer to sell the entire site to a single buyer. That should please Greater Fort Wayne Inc., which is eyeing the site for its proposed STEAM Park (for science, technology, engineering, arts and math) — if it can come up with $180 million or so.

Even if owners do disclose possible environmental problems, which Bean said does not always happen, prospective buyers should do their own independent research, he and Moppert agreed.

"No matter what was or wasn't there 10 years ago, things might have changed. You can get movement (of underground materials)," Moppert said.

But suppose a site is contaminated. What then?

For one thing, Bean said, clean-up costs can be included in the sales negotiation. And that's where the stability of both properties' owners comes in: If they agree to stand behind the buyer if problems are discovered later, it's a promise they should be in a position to keep — unlike that proverbial defunct barrel company. "GE has a good history of not releasing property for sale if there's a problem," he added. Conkrite agreed, noting that GE has worked with the state on clean-up activities over the last few decades and that "either GE or a prospective purchaser, or both, likely will perform additional environmental monitoring/testing and targeted removals/abatements . . . GE and a purchaser may agree to allocate responsibility for particular issues among themselves as part of the transaction.

"And some degree of contamination may be acceptable depending on the property's use. Because of residents' prolonged exposure, apartments might be limited to upper floors with commercial activity below. "I'd be surprised if there aren't some deed restrictions (on usage)," Bean said.

Government can help, too. In addition to economic development incentives, clean-up assistance may be available. And when the expected economic return justifies the cost of acquisition and clean-up, a deal is possible — especially when downtown Fort Wayne's renaissance encourages optimism that might have seemed reckless just a few years ago."

The momentum is accelerating to a level that amazes me." Bean said. It's a momentum that has attracted at least four proposals for all or part of the GE campus, with presentations to be made to the company Aug. 11 and a preferred developer chosen in September on the basis of qualifications, experience, actionable development vision, financial offer and ability to close the deal.

Think that "momentum" talk is just hype? In 2007 the city could have had the "North River" property for nearly $2 million less than the Rifkins are asking today.

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