Brownfields, Portfields and Sustainable Economic Development: The Case of New Bedford


New Bedford HarborCo-author: Frederick M. Kalisz, Jr.

Making the best of a bad situation is the American way. The well-known quotation “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” reinforces this perspective. Likewise, redefining weaknesses as strengths allows for greater latitude in strategic planning. For instance, smaller organizations can either bemoan the fact that they are limited by human and/or financial resources or embrace their size as a strength and promote their agility, responsiveness and ability to rapidly adjust to changing market conditions. Fortunately, in terms of economic development, this region provides us with numerous opportunities to redefine our weaknesses into strengths.

One such opportunity has the potential of not only becoming a strength, but of developing into a competitive advantage as well. However, the task of turning this weakness into a strength will require new thinking, new partnerships and a new approach to an old problem. What is the weakness of which we speak? Industrial sins of the past provide our region with an opportunity to establish itself as a center of excellence in environmental and sustainable economic development.

Anyone who has spent significant time in this area knows that New Bedford has been designated as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) superfund site, an EPA Brownfield Showcase Community and a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Brownfield Pilot Port. In addition to providing support to clean up the waterways and the port, these designations allow us to qualify for special grant funding in order to reclaim and/or develop brownfield sites for economically productive or recreational use. Essentially, brownfields are former industrial buildings (such as old mills, manufacturing facilities or power plants) or land previously used for industrial purposes for which there is little incentive for new development because of the liability associated with the cost of the mandated clean-up of the hazardous contamination at the site caused by the previous industrial use. The strategic advantage? New Bedford has over 20 years experience in dealing with superfund and brownfield sites. And we have plenty of potential sites to rehabilitate. By the late 1990’s, around 40 brownfield sites had been identified in New Bedford covering over 220 acres. In fact, cases like ours spawned a new term, “Portfields”, because of the proximity of active, working ports to contaminated brownfield areas. New Bedford is one of three portfield showcase communities in the U.S.A.

To date, different organizations within the region have received assessment grants, training grants, dredging support and over-time have developed expertise in the environmental clean-up market. Combined, the support money committed by various federal agencies exceeds an estimated $33 million and has generated in excess of 3,700 jobs. In brownfield grants alone, the EPA awarded the city of New Bedford over $1.8 million during the 1997-2003 periods. As a result, for every $1.00 of federal investment, a $22.50 economic impact was felt. One success story from this effort includes an $800,000 grant for the reclamation and clean-up of the Tallyrand site. After the clean-up, Aerovox Industries constructed a new facility on the site maintaining 400 jobs for the region and preventing a company relocation to outside of the country.

In summary, rather than view brownfield sites in the Greater New Bedford region as a weakness, the Sustainability Initiative at UMass Dartmouth seeks your partnership in transforming them into strengths. Collectively, we may advocate investing in the further development of our environmental expertise, to encourage local experts to incorporate their knowledge into environmentally oriented businesses and to “export” this expertise to the many others needy “Portfields” globally. The successful implementation of this initiative will require “outside-the-box” thinking and creative solutions in order to get the various interested stakeholders to function together synergistically – and it can all start here in the city that lit the world.


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