The primary source of grant funding for brownfield redevelopment is the JobsOhio Revitalization Fund. The program can provide up to $200,000 in grant money to fund Phase II environmental assessment work which is key to positioning brownfield properties for redevelopment. Many times it is difficult to determine whether a project is viable on a brownfield property because the level of contamination is unknown. Phase II assessment funds, whether under the old Clean Ohio Fund or the JobsOhio Revitalization Fund, have been absolutely essential to spurring brownfield redevelopment.
Once sampling has been completed, cleanup estimates can be made, which allows the developer or business to determine the capital stack necessary to complete the project. The JobsOhio Revitalization Fund can provide up to $1 million in grant funding to help pay for cleanup. This is less than the $3 million available under Clean Ohio, but still critically important to level the playing field between redeveloping an urban brownfield site and a greenfield site.
Under the Kasich Administration, JobsOhio placed tight restrictions on both Phase II assessment and cleanup funding. First, there was the requirement to have a known end user for the project that fit within JobsOhio targeted industries. Second, a requirement to create a certain amount of new jobs over a three year horizon.
These eligibility restrictions virtually eliminated speculative development projects on brownfield sites. It also limited a developers ability to position a property to attract end user because, without assessment funding, it is impossible to determine how much will be needed for cleanup.
Furthermore, by limiting eligibility to targeted industries with a prescribed set of new jobs, only a narrow set of projects could compete for brownfield grant funding. As such, positive attributes associated with brownfield redevelopment, such as elimination of urban blight, reducing sprawl, eliminating public health issues, attracting jobs to lower income neighborhoods were not considered when evaluating projects.
The Kasich Administration defended its brownfield redevelopment policy by stating the JobsOhio Revitalization Fund was focused on job creation, not necessarily brownfield redevelopment. Such a focus fails to leverage the generational shift toward moving to urban centers and away from continued sprawl.
The DeWine Administration has already changed leadership at JobsOhio. Governor DeWine has also made comments on a renewed focus on manufacturing areas, like Northeast Ohio, where the majority of brownfields exist. The following is from a recent Crain’s Cleveland Article discussing these recent changes with JobsOhio:
According to a Crain’s analysis of JobsOhio data, Northeast Ohio won only 20.7% of the $149 million in financial incentives provided by JobsOhio in 2018 to drive business growth. It also attracted only 29.5% of the capital investment made by businesses coming into the state or expanding existing operations, according to JobsOhio’s annual report. These figures are quite low, considering the size of Northeast Ohio’s economy. As DeWine told those gathered at the May 2 annual meeting of Team NEO, JobsOhio’s partner in the 18-county region, “You know that 40% of the economy of the state comes from Northeast Ohio. So how Northeast Ohio goes, so goes Ohio.”
Discussions are ongoing in Columbus on changes to the programs administered by JobsOhio. Those discussions include various options to loosen eligibility requirements to attract brownfield funding through the JobsOhio Revitalization Fund.
If the DeWine Administration is serious about putting more money to work in Northeast Ohio, an excellent way to start would be to modify the JobsOhio Revitalization Fund to open up grant funding to more brownfield projects. Brownfield projects have the ability to transform entire neighborhoods by attracting additional economic investment. Brownfield projects also have many other benefits to the urban core areas of the State that should not be ignored when evaluating projects. Right now, the DeWine Administration has an excellent opportunity to transform brownfield redevelopment policy in the State. The early signs this will occur appear positive.