Although some states maintain databases of regulated and contaminated properties, buyers and developers evaluating that real estate still need to be able to find that information and conduct more research themselves, a brownfields industry expert told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 1.
Aside from a few ad-hoc surveys and efforts by some cities, however, there is no comprehensive database to search and evaluate vacant, abandoned and underutilized real estate, said Dan French, founder and CEO of Brownfield Listings, an online redevelopment marketplace dedicated to real estate reuse.
The new website streamlines that process and opens this market by offering a platform at which relevant stakeholders can connect, French said.
French, a former corporate attorney with experience in environmental due diligence, launched the site in July. “We realized there was no real redevelopment channel, nothing to serve the brownfield real estate ecosystem as a whole. So, we built an off-the-shelf tool that was available to everyone,” French said.
Brownfield Listings fixes a broken brownfields market by flattening the brownfield information silos and providing a marketplace available to all interested parties.
French said he hopes the platform serves as “the medium between the property owners, the purchasers, professionals and all potential parties to a deal.”
The online marketplace connects all sides of a deal and gives profiles to cities, vendors and service providers. Anyone can log on, join for free and create a profile to broadcast what it is they’re looking for.
“Markets trade on information, and the redevelopment marketplace is starving for information,” French said. “Brownfield Listings offers that. If we can lead with substance, we can accelerate the market and reach a much wider audience of interested parties.”
The concept is simple, French said. Listers of brownfield properties upload content onto their marketplace profile – property specifications; licenses or certifications; completed RFPs, Phase Is or Phase IIs; and any other information that might be useful to other redevelopment parties.
Brownfield Listings serves as a virtual data room, housing all the information parties involved in brownfield property transactions and redevelopment might need.
Those interested in redeveloping a site can use tags to narrow down the specific types of property or specific property conditions they’re looking for: multimodal, brightfields, greenfields and many more.
Similarly, redevelopers or experts in the brownfield property market also can use skill tags to highlight different work they’ve done or properties with which they are familiar.
Buyers are able to search for listers, and listers can search for buyers or redevelopers. Any party can comment and post on projects, as well as create their own pages.
“We’re trying to frontload the environmental due diligence,” French said, “streamlining the process by making sure parties owning brownfield property get real looks from buyers that know the specific condition of the site and what’s been done so far.”
“Brownfields is a subsector of real estate that moves a little differently,” French said. “There are always extra concerns when dealing with these old properties, always some extra wrinkles.”
Brownfield Listings serves as a “market for misfits” that focuses entirely on getting to the transaction and connecting all sides of the redevelopment market.
Howardville, Mo., is one of those “misfits” served by Brownfield Listings, Vannessa Frazier, Executive Director of Howardville Community Betterment, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 6.
Howardville, a tiny rural town (population 383) located in the bootheel of Missouri, had been devastated by an ice storm, and community leaders rapidly realized they had nowhere to house residents in the event of another emergency.
Frazier proposed a novel solution: redeveloping an old school in Howardville into a community center.
“The storm and its effects really kick-started interest in redeveloping the school for community use,” Frazier said. However, she immediately encountered difficulties with the property.
The school, built in 1958 but abandoned for decades, was contaminated with mold, suspected asbestos-containing materials and suspected lead-based paint.
The city previously had considered tearing down the school and renovating the site, but further investigation revealed that demolition would cost more than remediation and redevelopment.
Realizing the city couldn’t tackle such an immense undertaking on its own, Frazier led an effort to obtain an EPA brownfields grant. Her efforts resulted in a $200,000 grant from the EPA to remediate and redevelop the school.
Little did Frazier realize, the real battle had only begun.
As Frazier learned, smaller rural communities often find it difficult to get on the brownfields radar.
Adding to the complications was the fact that the property itself wasn’t for sale. The original owner of the land bought the lot specifically to build a school; when it was deeded to the city of Howardville, the citizens owned the property in perpetuity under the stipulation that the land never be sold.
“We sent out [a request for proposal] three times and got zero proposals,” Frazier said.
Frazier found the hardest part was simply getting in contact with other professionals in the redevelopment field. “It’s usually easy for smaller communities to reach out but hard for other people to reach in,” she said.
“What we needed was exposure,” Frazier said, a tool with which to tell Howardville’s story and attract interest. She needed a forum where property redevelopment professionals from all sides could interact.
While preparing to participate in a deal room presentation at the 2015 Brownfields Conference in Chicago, Frazier met French, a fellow panelist, who introduced her to Brownfield Listings.
Thus far, the results have been promising
Frazier said since being listed on the website and featured as a spotlight project, “we’ve gotten so much interest from developers all over the nation. They’re excited about the project and have offered all kinds of resources.”
The Howardville school site has since received six responses to its most recent RFP. “Now we’re moving toward developing a rural community with an urban design,” Frazier said.
“Brownfield Listings is a gold mine for struggling rural communities like ours all over the country—to me, this project, a pilot for our area, is a testimony for rural communities that are struggling.”
Those smaller communities were a major focus of building the site, French said. “Working on the secondary and tertiary markets was very important to us,” he said.
Sites not located in a major market (i.e., the vast majority of brownfield sites) often struggle to receive the exposure and funding necessary to remediate and redevelop. “But they’re the ones that really need that redevelopment and economic input,” French said.
Brownfield Listings makes that marketplace available for free to all entities, especially those who often find themselves locked out of the traditional real estate channels.
“We’re really working on developing and reanimating the smaller markets that might not have received national interest before Brownfield Listings,” French said.
Frazier remains amazed at the amount of publicity they’ve generated for the Howardville site directly because of Brownfield Listings
“Now, we’ve established a dedicated checking account for redevelopment of the site, we’re being seen all over the country, and work is ongoing,” she said.
“Brownfield Listings gave us the exposure we needed as a small, rural community, and has connected us with all kinds of partners who really do want to help these smaller sites.”
“The biggest thing is moving past the status quo to a new, improved ‘Brownfields 2.0’,” French said.
“In the past few decades, we’ve really learned how to get these types of deals done, from a legal perspective, from a technical perspective, and from a real estate perspective.”
Now, according to French, we’re on the second generation of understanding; one in which the marketplace has the technology and expertise to understand better than ever before the unique challenges inherent to working on legacy properties.
Brownfield Listings is mainstreaming redevelopment by getting these projects on the minds, and in the hands, of parties with the experience and desire to redevelop these brownfield and greyfield sites.
“Everyone in the marketplace is ready to work,” French said. “Brownfield Listings is the platform to host that work,” he said. By “daylighting the market space,” the site allows brownfield professionals to pick up previously unnoticed or underrepresented projects and run with them.
That opportunity for a broader reach is particularly attractive to rural sites, said Logan B. Smith, Program Manager with the Siskiyou County Economic Development Council.
“Smaller communities like ours are really good at marketing to ourselves but not that good at marketing outside our region,” Smith told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 6.
“The hardest thing is often trying to leverage opportunities to make sure we’re being heard by others outside our defined area.”
Smith led a redevelopment project in Mt. Shasta, Calif., and listed the project on Brownfield Listings after meeting French.
“The website is an excellent resource for getting the basic information and specific details of a site out to people who might be interested,” Smith said.
The Mt. Shasta site, an old timber mill, had been vacant for 30 years as the area slowly transitioned from a resource extraction– based economy on to one focused on tourism and outdoor recreation.
Petroleum contamination and fungicides left over from treating lumber presented difficult barriers to redevelopment, but the site long has been viewed by the city of Mt. Shasta as having positive redevelopment potential.
The problem, Smith said, was moving from a local focus to a regional and national focus in terms of attracting redevelopers and interested businesses.
“Brownfield Listings allows a real estate market where we are able to reach out to a much broader audience, including experienced professionals who want to be a part of the revitalization,” he said.
Since posting the Mt. Shasta site on Brownfield Listings, the project has received renewed interest from developers, and numerous contractors have contacted Smith with interest in redevelopment projects.
“Brownfield Listings is an excellent professional opportunity for those in the brownfields realm, allowing parties to present assets not as ‘hidden gems’ but as viable investment opportunities,” Smith said.
Such opportunities are incredibly beneficial to rural areas and communities facing difficulty generating interest in redevelopment.
Smith also praised the depth and breadth of information offered on the site.
“People that are seeing your site acknowledge the brownfields history and know that they’re getting a deal that’s already been evaluated. A lot of these sites already have the infrastructure in place, and the redevelopers are seasoned—they aren’t scared off by the brownfield label.”
It’s an audience that sites located in smaller markets often have struggled to reach.
In the end, French said, it all comes down to exposure and availability of information. “Brownfield Listings allows anyone to find interesting redevelopment opportunities much more easily, find the information they need in the listing, and have direct contact with the owner,” he said.
Smith agreed. “Brownfield Listings offers exposure. It offers an educated clientele, as far as knowing what brownfields are. And it offers a relatively inexpensive way for rural areas to redevelop and pursue their sustainable economic goals.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Logan L. Hollers in Washington, D.C., at email@example.com.
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