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Editorial: Think more often about brownfield sites

When possible, sites like Kesler Mills should be among locations considered when recruiting new businesses.

The site formerly was home to textile mills, but was abandoned as the industry found other countries to be more profitable. Sites like it are seldom a first choice when elected officials and economic development professionals are trying to pitch to prospects. Almost always, they’re not up to modern standards or expectations for industry. It would be easier, for example, to find open land to build a new manufacturing or fulfillment facility — where companies don’t have to worry about cleanup or altering existing structures to meet specifications.

But building on undeveloped land has its drawbacks, including adding to urban sprawl and taking away animal habitat. For folks who live in the country because it offers peace and quiet, it also means bringing “the city” a little closer.

Redeveloping so-called “brownfield” sites — where contamination of some time is suspected or has been found — should be a goal supported by environmentalists and people who live in rural areas and prefer it that way. Doing so means that unused land in cities doesn’t stay that way.

Former Salisbury City Planner Kyle Harris correctly noted in a story published Sunday (“Brownfields programs help former industrial sites get new life”) that “there’s a big perception issue, especially if you’re redeveloping in an area where there is documented proof of potentially contaminating, intense industrial uses.”

But there are solutions to that.

In addition to federal grant funding for cleanup, which Salisbury already is seeking for Kesler Mill, there’s may be a solution for that in the form of local incentives.

What if, for example, Salisbury and/or Rowan County offered to pay part or all of the cost of cleanup? The city or county could also pay all or part of costs that wouldn’t otherwise be incurred on an undeveloped site? Rowan County already receives more than $2 million every year in local sales taxes (and that amount is growing) for the purpose of economic development. Redeveloping old industrial sites certainly seems like a worthy cause.

Sure, there will be many cases where an industrial prospect cannot build on a site like Kesler Mill because of environmental rules or that the location isn’t large enough. Chewy, for example, couldn’t possibly have built there.

But in 2020 and beyond, we hope officials increasingly will look to brownfield redevelopment as a possibility.

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