Back in 1872 when Collis P. Huntington and others founded Ensign Car Works to build railroad cars and car parts, and in 1899 when Ensign merged with American Car and Foundry Co., the word “brownfield” had yet to come into widespread use, if it existed at all.
Today having a site being designated as a brownfield — an unused industrial site that may have contaminated soil or groundwater — can slow down redevelopment of idled factories.
Such is the case with the former ACF Industries factory along 3rd Avenue in the Highlawn section of Huntington. Once part of the manufacturing sector that anchored the Huntington — and Tri-State — economy, the plant has been silent for years.
Huntington officials want to use the site to anchor an ambitious plan to bring 21st century jobs to the city, but the possibility of contamination has slowed progress.
Last week, city officials announced that preliminary environmental tests on the 37 acres of the former ACF property have shown promising initial results.
“The initial reports came back better than we anticipated, and we will resume environmental testing in October,” said Cathy Burns, executive director of the Huntington Municipal Development Authority.
Mayor Steve Williams said he was pleased with both the environmental testing results and the progress that is being made to align the site to become the economic gateway of the Appalachian region.
“This will be a game-changer for our community,” Williams said.
Williams said he will announce the creation of a task force this fall with senior leaders from the city of Huntington, HMDA, Marshall University, the Huntington Area Development Council, Mountain Health, the West Virginia Development Office, Advantage Valley and other agencies to consider best strategies for bringing innovation- and knowledge-sector job development to the former ACF site.
The conceptual plan for the 37-acre parcel envisions mixed-use development, including up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space, lab space, research and development space, and space geared toward health care-based and knowledge-sector facilities, officials said following the purchase of the property.
The next round of environmental testing will take time, of course. It likely will be years before the site is cleared and prepared for construction of new buildings.
These things take time, and time could work to the city’s advantage.
Having a site ready for innovation- and knowledge-based jobs is one thing. Having an economic or political climate to attract those jobs is another. The federal and state governments might decide to build facilities there, but ideally the private sector will find the 37 acres attractive.
The fact this area is not having to turn those jobs away now is an indication that it is not competitive with larger cities such as Columbus or Nashville. KineticPark was proposed in the 1990s and was supposed to be filled with technology-oriented businesses. That didn’t happen. Local officials need to look at what happened there and ask knowledgeable people why.
Redeveloping the ACF property can be a big win for the city if it’s done right. Highlawn could use a revival in private-sector development. Marshall is doing well. So is St. Mary’s Medical Center. The area in between could use stimulus, too.
The city has time to learn what went awry at KineticPark and determine how the ACF property can avoid being a similar disappointment.