Rural Illinois Perspectives: Brownfields and economic development

Many communities have land where a previous user left chemicals that pollute the soil and water. These sites, called brownfields, often pose health hazards. The vacant land also is unsightly and drains the community’s economy.

Local public officials, especially in small towns, may not have the technical knowledge or may not understand how to manage brownfield redevelopment. Usually, unless the brownfield site is an obvious health or safety hazard or unless an owner or private developer wishes to redevelop the property, it sits idle.

A recent report from the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University examines 25 Illinois municipalities with 37 brownfield redevelopment projects. Brownfields can become an economic development asset, especially in cities with a substantial demand for developable commercial or industrial property. The municipalities in the study effectively made this transition; returns on their investment were substantial.

Attitudes and approaches toward brownfield remediation and redevelopment changed during the 1990s as a strong economy caused developers to seek potential sites in strategic locations. Because many industrial properties were among the first urban developments, they are often in downtowns with infrastructure and high-density traffic. Thus, some brownfields are strategically located for redevelopment.

The attitude of state and federal personnel toward brownfields also has changed. These sites are increasingly recognized for their job creation and investment potential, which are important motivators for remediation and redevelopment to remove health and safety hazards. Officials also acknowledge, however, that a fear of potential liability for owners of brownfields put these sites at a disadvantage, compared with greenfield properties.

Legislative changes and more aggressive state-level technical assistance programs by state agencies are helping local public officials and business developers better navigate brownfield redevelopment. In Illinois, the state Environmental Protection Agency has been a strong partner in these community and economic development efforts. The technical assistance provided in negotiating the brownfield redevelopment process and the financial assistance used in the assessment processes have been invaluable in helping communities initiate successful redevelopment efforts.

Municipal officials now see brownfields as more than a contamination removal concern; instead, they see them as viable properties for development. But development costs of brownfield sites can be substantially higher, and these costs must be offset in some way if the sites are to compete with greenfield sites on the edge of the city.

The study was a collaborative research effort involving the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the Illinois Municipal League, the Western Illinois Regional Council, and the IIRA. A copy of the report can be obtained at

Tim Collins is the assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. For more information about the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, visit or call Collins at 800-526-9943 or e-mail

From the Sept. 14-20, 2005, issue

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