City takes some heat for Kesler mill site
SALISBURY - As the city pursues a federal grant that could help lead to clean up of a 12-acre blight in the Park Avenue neighborhood, one activist criticized Salisbury officials for not acting sooner.
"It's a travesty that they've had to endure this for so long and we're just finding out about a brownfields grant that could help," William Peoples told City Council this week.
Peoples, a community activist, said he was speaking on behalf of people in the neighborhood who are "helpless and can't do anything" about huge piles of debris in direct view of dozens of houses on Park Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Kesler Street and other thoroughfares.
Peoples doesn't live in Park Avenue, where an Atlanta-based nonprofit demolished the old Kesler textile mill in 2009 and has yet to remove the rubble.
But he asked elected officials and city leaders to put themselves in the shoes of people who do live there and contend every day with the mess that could be putting their health and welfare at risk.
"City Council to a certain degree has dropped the ball," Peoples said.
Pursuing a grant
Last month, City Council agreed to pursue a grant of up to $400,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the old mill site and determine whether it's contaminated.
Property owner FCS Urban Ministries, a nonprofit Christian community development organization, says it can't afford the $200,000 price tag to clean up the property and has asked the city to take ownership.
City staffers say the assessment grant is the first step before considering taking over.
If approved, the grant would pay to investigate possible contamination at other Salisbury sites as well.
The city hosted a forum Monday night and received public comment during Tuesday's council meeting as part of the application process.The city then could pursue EPA brownfields funding, which pays to help redevelop property and return it to productive use, said Charles Ray, public outreach coordinator for PPM Consultants in Alabama.
Ray, the former economic development director and brownfields coordinator for St. Petersburg, Fla., said the Kesler site is a good candidate for brownfields funding, even if the assessment grant shows no contamination.
The redevelopment program deals with sites where the perception of environmental contamination prevents the sale of the property, Ray said.
Old factories, former service stations, demolished mills like Kesler, which was also Cannon Mills Plant No. 7, often are reputed to be contaminated, he said.
"A brownfields site does not have to be contaminated," he said. "But because of perception due to past use or materials left on site, it can't be sold."
An EPA superfund site is not the same as a brownfields site. Brownfields are only in urban areas and vary in size and nature, including commercial, industrial and residential.
The goal is to expand the local tax base by getting the property back into use, whatever that may be, Ray said.
Up to $1 million is available for clean up and redevelopment in a combination of grants and loans.
Salisbury used the same idea in the 1990s to redevelop the Cheerwine building, said Randy Hemann, executive director for Downtown Salisbury Inc.
'Removing barriers to development'
The city and DSI worked together to remove an oil tank, abate asbestos, bury power lines and make other improvements.
"In essence, we removed all the barriers to development, and that's what is exciting about this grant," Hemann said.
The grant process will identify up to 15 sites in Salisbury that could benefit from assessment, cleanup and redevelopment. DSI's Empire Hotel is another candidate, as well as some privately owned sites.
"The EPA does not you clean it up," Hemann said. "That still remains the owner's choice."
While everyone wants to see the old Kesler site cleaned up, Hemann said, he disagreed with Peoples on whether the city should have done something sooner.
"Frankly, I'm glad you didn't spend our taxpayer dollars on that at the time, if this money that could assist is there," he said.
True economic development is comprehensive, and putting property back into productive use is a laudable goal, said Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development.
"That economic impact ripples across the community," he said.
This could be the start of an ongoing initiative that encourages reinvestment in older properties, Van Geons said.
"Our community wants to see those properties put back into use," he said.
City Council members agreed.
With fixed boundaries and no more annexations, Salisbury needs to use every square footage available for economic development, Councilman Brian Miller said.
Councilwoman Maggie Blackwell acknowledged the frustration of residents near the Kesler site and assured them the city is "going through the process as quickly as we can."
The city has just begun a 23-step application process, said Joe Morris, director of Community Planning Services.
"It's going to take a long time," Mayor Paul Woodson said.
PPM Consultants will lead the grant application process for Salisbury. The federal government pays for cities to apply for assessment grants, so Salisbury has no application cost and no local match.
Peoples urged the city to make haste.
Residents who live near the mill debris complain of snakes and rodents coming into their backyards from the rubble and worry about the safety of their children.
"It's unacceptable in the city of Salisbury," Peoples said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.