This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Photo of Michelle Barnett standing at the podium during her presentation

Michelle Barnett

Michelle Barnett: As mentioned, I’m the director of the Brownfields Program for the city of Tulsa. I’m also the Deputy Chief of Economic Development for the city of Tulsa, and I really just want to welcome you guys again and appreciate your coming here and being a part of what the city has to offer in terms of its architecture, its historic resources and just the culture we have here and hopefully you’ve found the people that you’ve met and the places that you’ve been to be warm and welcoming, and if not, I want to welcome you again and thank you guys for coming here to Tulsa.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about funding for historic preservation and who in here has been across or had a project where they’ve needed additional funding or didn’t have enough in their capital stack to make things work? Okay, just a few, right? Because we’re always looking for how do we put this project together, how do we make this work.

Some of the … I wanted to focus today on funding that’s available from what we called Brownfields Projects and Brownfields Sites are real property that have known or suspected contamination problems, that forms a barrier to that properties being reused or redeveloped or rehabilitated in some way, and in that manner they require intervention to realize their potential, and here are just a few different types of examples of the projects that we’ve had to work on.

Some of the steps that are involved with Brownfields Projects involve first just looking at the site and understanding whether or not there are environmental conditions that are associated with that facility. That’s been through a phase one environmental site assessment and we’ll be talking more about these as I walk through some of the funding opportunities that are available associated with each one of these steps. Then if the phase one indicates that there is a recognized environmental condition, a phase two may be done and that really delineates the extent of the problem. A phase three then may be developed to look at what the plans are for addressing that problem, as well as developing some cost estimates, and then the fourth step is really looking at that site cleanup and what that requires.

And I kind of think of this about I go to the doctor’s office and I say “my throat hurts” and she says “yes, you’re throats but I think there’s something we need to look at”, and that’s usually that phase one. You go in and you say “I think we have a problem, yes we have a problem”. Phase two is when they go and say “we needed to take some more pictures of your throat and see what’s there”, and that’s like that, phase two. And so, if you guys ever been to the doctor, you understand how that works.

Some of the funding that’s available there are through what we call Targeted Brownfields Assessment Funds. Those help address the discovery, the delineation, investigation and expansion of what that would require, and then there are several different types of funds that are available to help address the cleanup. So we’ll talk about each one of those, and really the purpose of these funds is to kind of bridge the gap that is there between discovery and final reuse. When something is discovered to have an environmental condition associated with it, usually that … the extent of that condition is unknown and that unknown risk makes it difficult for properties to be redeveloped, or reused, or rehabilitated, and so the Targeted Brownfields Assessment or TBA assessments are there to help bridge that part of the gap which is that kind of yawning chasm of who knows what might be there. The other funds that we’re going to talk about are really addressing the gap in funding that’s needed to get it to be market ready, and those are the cleanup type funds.

So first let’s talk about Brownfields and Targeted Brownfields Assessments. Targeted Brownfields Assessments can be available from a federal agency, from your state’s environmental agency and also sometimes from your local environment coordinator. For example here in the state of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City has separate assessment funds, the city of Tulsa does not yet, although we’ve applied to kind of start that process. Typically these are done by the agency themselves or their contractor, so rather than you having to hire someone to come out and look at your property, they would actually have their contractor, or their staff come out and do that work for you. They address phase ones, twos and threes environmental site assessments. They don’t get into the funding for the cleanup activities, we’ll talk about that separately, and can be used to address everything from fuel storage tanks, old gas stations, asbestos in buildings, lead-based paint and those are some of the common things that we see in projects that involve roadside architecture.

I want to emphasize this because as we go forward into eligibility for cleanup funds, one of the key things that I’ll say over and over again is you have to be able to prove that you didn’t cause the problem, and that’s done through a phase one environmental site assessment. So I always encourage people to please, even if you don’t think you may have a problem, go ahead and do that phase one before you purchase a project, whether you’re a nonprofit or governmental agency, or otherwise. Just to be able to show, if you get into something in the future, you’re covered in terms of being able to prove you didn’t cause the problem.

So, what are some of the eligible applicants for Targeted Brownfields Assessments. We look at municipalities can apply. So the city of Tulsa has used Targeted Brownfields Assessments that are provided by the state of Oklahoma and by the federal government through US EPA. Sometimes we’ll also work with COGs. In Oklahoma they’re the councils of government or COGs. In other states those quasi governmental agencies are known by other names but that’s what they’re around here. We also work with authorities and commissions like the development authority or the housing authority or airport authorities might be some other types of applicants, and also nonprofits that are working with a municipality. So basically this is all going to be funneled back through some type of governmental agency in relationship to another agency and then performing those for each other.

Some of the things that are important in being able to obtain funding for Targeted Brownfields Assessments is just having a commitment to revitalizing that property, having some redevelopment or reuse potential so they don’t want to be funding things that are just going to sit there for a long period of time, that nobody really knows what to do with it. They’re really looking to fund projects, and the assessment of those projects that have some type of future planned out for them. Where reuse or redevelopment is going to be a benefit to the community.

Upclose image of one of Vollis Simpson's whirlygigs.

Example of a whirlygig at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

One of the projects I wanted to highlight here is a Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in North Carolina. Who here has heard of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park? Okay yeah. I love this project. I think it’s so interesting because it’s one of those where preservation really formed or instigated a lot of other things in that community that were exciting to see. So Vollis Simpson was a farmer and he also moved houses and he collected things when he moved houses, things that people had left behind, pieces and parts, and he used those and put them together in unique ways and created Whirligigs out of them, and he put them all over his farm in a big field, and when he finally decided that he was old enough to retire and he really didn’t feel like he could take care of these anymore, I’m summarizing for all of you who know the story better, decided he would donate these to the city of Wilson, North Carolina.

And Wilson, North Carolina, used to be the tobacco capital of North Caroline, it’s covered with old tobacco warehouses, has a pretty medium sized population with an average income of about thirty-six thousand dollars a year for the average household there. Through the donation of those products, the city kind of came together and went to a number of agencies and began to say “okay, we have these resources, now what do we do with this?”. And so they were able to get quite a bit of funding and support in terms of technological support and research support to develop a Whirligig conservation plan and a park. They also obtained some funding from their tobacco trust fund to support development in the area of that park, which is in the middle of Wilson, North Caroline.

And then also TIGER Grant from ODOT from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. I saw ODOT because that’s the Oklahoma department, but to pay for some highway improvements to lead into the park area and into Wilson itself. And one of the things that they found though as moved forward is that there was a lot of interest in developing around the Whirligig Park but because of the condition of the surrounding warehouses and the environmental conditions associated with them, there was still an environmental barrier to the rest of the community in that area being redeveloped, and so the EPA came in with an assessment grant for that community to help bridge that initial gap, that I don’t know what’s out there gap, and help them come up with funding not only for that but also for some of the cleanup mechanisms there. And ended up attracting a great deal of additional investment in that central area of Wilson, North Carolina. It’s a great story because if you ever have a chance to go out and look and google that story, there’s a lot of information out there.

Now I want to talk a little bit beyond Brownfields Assessments, beyond that process where we identify and quantify the problems, to how do we actually get things cleaned up, and for projects where the property values are quite high, and the cost to clean up is low, many of those projects are going to be self-implementing, that is, they happen and people take care of the problems, and the buildings or the structures that they have without ever involving a government agency except to get a building permit. That self-implementing wedge changes depending on market conditions whether market conditions are hot or not. The second wedge there is where the cleanup costs are higher and the cost or the value of that property is lower, and those typically involve some type of public-private partnership.

And the third category are projects where the cleanup cost is going to be very high and the value that property may not be that significant, and so for those typically involve public sector actions. I wanted to start out by talking about public and private partnerships and the funds that are available for those activities.

One of those is the Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund, and these are low to no interest loans to businesses so they’re loans to private sector individuals. They can also be forgivable loans to nonprofit groups that typically require some type of match and that can be an in-kind match as well in some cases, but reimbursement of costs. So you first spend the money and then you’re reimbursed for those activities that you’ve conducted. And then once that principle is repaid it can be relent and circulated within the community.

The city of Tulsa has a Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund, so if you guys have a Brownfield project that you want to do, we have four hundred thousand dollars right now that we’re looking to make loans on for Brown fields projects in the city of Tulsa. It provides an ongoing source of lending capital within the community and is often available to state and a local level. So for one project that we’re looking on right now, it’s going to be quite expensive and so it would exhaust all the funds we have locally, but I can also, and I have gone to the state and said “we have this very large project, what do you guys have in your RLF that you can contribute and together we can … I think we can come up and put those together and make one really solid project.”

Eligible applicants must own a brownfield must not have caused the brownfield to become that way and be able to repay the loan and have a plan for reuse. Some of the problems or property types that are eligible are really anything that you can think of, old dumps, it could be landmarks, it could be retail, it could be gas stations, it could be laundromats, it could be industrial facilities, whatever you can think of as long as it’s not single family residential, probably fits within the boundaries of this program.

Some of the things that you might think about for cleanup of these are petroleum contamination, asbestos and lead-based paint are often very common, as well as hazardous substances. Controlled substances, like meth labs and others, and then mine-scarred lands and other contaminants. I put animal debris because if you’ve ever been in an old building where the ceiling is falling down or the windows are out, there’s like piles of dead pigeons and pooh and that’s actually an environmental condition that can be addressed through some of these cleanup grants. So, things to consider there.

So, some of the things that can be used for, that site control is one of the important things, that’s fencing, that’s maintaining storm water not moving offsite to warning signs, stabilizing facilities, putting on caps so that things don’t migrate off-site. Also, the actual process of cleaning up, whether its asbestos or lead-based paint or things in the water or things in dirt. That cleanup process is fully covered by this RLF program.

Photo of the front facade of the Okla Theater

Okla Theater in McAlester, Oklahoma

And then I wanted to just highlight a project here that we did with the Okla Theater in McAlester, Oklahoma. Just a little about an hour or two south of here. This theater is an art deco example opened in 1931, closed in ’89. It had asbestos issues on the interior of the facility and so when they wanted to reuse that as a community center, community theater, they obtained a Revolving Loan Fund Award from the Oklahoma department of Environmental Quality, and they used that for the abatement of the asbestos in the building in coordination with the state’s historic preservation office to preserve the art deco features that were present in that building. I also used a lot of volunteers, and I will say this, if you’re working with volunteers and you’re doing a site cleanup, try to keep those two separate, cause we had this situation where we had people completely suited up and barriers up and then volunteers trying to come in and do work at the same time so, just encourage everyone to try to keep volunteers away from the environmental stuff, so.

Another thing that we can try to look at in terms of public and private partnerships are Petroleum Storage Tank Funds, and 36 of our states have fuel storage tank funds. At any one time there may be more or less, but generally they’re … most of our states have Petroleum Storage Tank Funds and they can be used really as they indicate, usually for old fuel stations.

Over ten billion dollars have been spent to clean up old leaking underground storage tank facilities but there are still a lot of these out there as you probably have seen and been involved at these types of facilities. They address cleanups from the leaking of underground fuel storage tanks at gas stations, but one thing they don’t usually do is address the removal of those tanks. So the tanks usually come out and if there is a problem found after the tanks have come out, then these type of funds would be used. They require matching funds or a co-pay in the state of Oklahoma it’s a thousand dollar co-pay per hundred thousand that the state puts in, up to a maximum of five thousand dollars for a five hundred thousand dollar cleanup. So they do leverage a lot of funds, along with that co-pay opportunity.

And the assessment and the cleanup is provided by the agency’s contractors so the city of Tulsa has one of these right now where we’re doing along route 66, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is actually conducting the cleanup of a former gas stations. It will be transferred, and it is already been transferred to the city of Tulsa. It will become part of our rail park that’s out there on Southwest Boulevard. If you guys have a chance to go see it where the oil derrick goes up and the trains are located, it’s a really neat experience.

Eligible applicants have to own a leaking underground storage tank that makes sense, and that includes private businesses, municipalities and nonprofits and being able to show that again, you didn’t cause the problem to be there. Again, that’s done through a phase one environmental site assessment. So I’ll say that like fifteen times during this presentation. It can be used to assess the extent of release, to conduct the risk assessment, to actually clean up the site, whether it’s in soil or ground water or vapor, and then restoration of the site prior to its reuse. So pretty much covers the gamut of things that you might need to have addressed there.

The third category of cleanups that we’re going to look at are those that are in the public sector realm. These are brownfields cleanups, cleanup grants and these are available from US EPA. Eligible applicants have to own a brownfield and again, as I mentioned these are public sector. These are the things that no one else wants to deal with. You typically languish for a long time, until some public sector agency comes along and purchases a property and makes the commitment to redevelopment or to cleaning it up to market conditions. Again, have to be able to show that we didn’t cause the problem and to be able to execute the cleanup. City of Tulsa has three of these cleanup grants currently associated with historic property just northeast of downtown. The types of properties that are eligible, again, they could be industrial sites, they could be commercial sites, they could be retail, really the gamut of the types of properties that are eligible but they have to be publicly owned properties to make this work.

The types of contamination again range from petroleum to asbestos, lead-based paint and on. Pretty much anything that you can think of that might be an environmental barrier to redevelopment. The properties that we’re working on currently had asbestos lead-based paint inside the buildings that we’ve already taken care of, as well as metals, oils, PCBs and others that are in the soils that we’re working on getting cleaned up currently. So, several different phases involved there but all apply to the activities that can be done under this grant.

Photo of boat at a dock


An example I want to show you is the USS HOGA which served in Pearl Harbor, was declared a national landmark in 1989. So if you think about Pearl Harbor and Nevada was looking to get out of the harbor and make it to open water, was bombed right as it began to enter the channel to exit the harbor and luckily or not luckily but intentionally landed itself on the sandbar. HOGA came in helped it right itself, put out the fires, keep ships from sinking, get people off of boats, do a lot of firefighting. Credited with saving the Pacific Fleet at that point in time.

It was purchased by the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum and so they sought to bring it to Arkansas. It currently is in Little Rock, Arkansas and applied for a grant from US EPA to do the cleanup of this ship and they ran into a problem with the ship actually being … meeting that definition of real property environmental contamination of which impedes its barrier … it serves as a barrier to redevelopment. A ship … a real property typically has to have an address and a ship doesn’t have an address. So they worked with their local SHPO or the state SHPO to develop a preservation easement that actually was able to provide it with a legal description and they were able to apply the EPA for their brownfields grant and address the asbestos and lead-based paint and other hazardous materials that remained on the ship. Also in coordination with their HPC, it is now open in Little Rock, Arkansas. If you guys ever want to go down there and see one of these ships, along with I think submarines and some other resources which are really neat to see.

With that I want to just conclude, we have a few minutes left I think for questions, if you guys have any questions about brownfields and financing for redevelopment. Yes.

Speaker 2: A family owned a gas station property for decades and a business may have closed in the seventies and it’s just been sitting, would that family not be eligible, would they be considered to have caused the impact by letting … by having it sit there?

Michelle Barnett: If they had operated the facility, I don’t believe so but that’s certainly … it’s always worth asking. Right? But typically those funds are for organiza … or facilities that have not caused the issue. Now it you’ve … like the city of Tulsa’s bought this piece of property that was closed as a gas station, decades before the current registration laws went into effect and so we’ve actually had to do quite a bit of research to prove that we didn’t cause the problems that were left there, and that certainly … some of that historic research is valuable to people who want to prove that they own it but they didn’t actually cause problems. Does that maybe answer your question.

Speaker 2: Yeah, and are … in situations like that where the station has always been in the family, are they actually liable for-

Michelle Barnett: If there have been releases from a storage tank, they should be addressed by the owner, yes. There are some other resources that are also available to help out people who can’t really take care of those things as well. So, if you have a specific one in question I can maybe help direct you to the right person who might be able to help with that.

Speaker 3:  Another question? No? Okay, well thank you guys. Wait.

Michelle Barnett: Oh, we got one.

Speaker 3: There you go.

Speaker 4: You’d mentioned a lot of the funding was through EPA, and I know they’ve gone through a lot of cuts lately, do you know how the Brownfields Program has kind of faired in all of that?

Michelle Barnett: It looks like Brownfields is doing quite well in that and that’s one been a real relief to see that the current administration for all the other things that are going on really seems to want to see that type of redevelopment and reuse and reinvestment to happen, so.

Speaker 4:  Are there other federal programs, similar to that? Or is it mostly through EPA?

Michelle Barnett:  The Brownfields Program is specific to US EPA, yes.

Speaker 3: Okay, do we have anymore questions? No, alright. Thank you.

Michelle Barnett: Thank you, and again, welcome to Tulsa, thank you.


Michelle Barnett, P.E., has more than 20 years of experience and has worked with EPA’s brownfields program for the last 10 years.  She is the Director of the City of Tulsa’s Brownfields program and is currently working on several site cleanups, including two along historic Route 66.  Because two of biggest barriers to getting contaminated properties back into use are knowledge and money, Ms. Barnett’s role is working with the public and private sector to identify funding for brownfield cleanup and redevelopment projects.

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