EPA injects $300K into Okemah ‘Brownfield’ program
By Ken Childers
A vision to redevelop historic gas station properties, or “Brownfield Sites,” along the Highway 62 corridor in Okemah is one step closer to becoming reality, thanks to a federal grant that has been awarded to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC).
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the OCC will receive a Brownfields assessment grant for $300,000. The grant is part of $65.6 million given nationwide to assess and clean up contaminated properties under the agency’s Brownfields Program.
The OCC will focus its grant on abandoned gas stations within the city of Okemah, which is located within a Qualified Opportunity Zone. Priority sites include 10 gas stations that contain abandoned underground storage tanks.
“The announcement from EPA is very exciting for the City of Okemah, as it will offer us the opportunity and funding to participate in a city wide assessment for many of the underground fuel storage tanks that exist in our community,” said Andy Tucker, Economic Development Director for the City of Okemah. “Many of these properties have been handicapped for decades due to the environmental liability of these underground tanks and this partnership should offer the expertise and resources to remediate several sites within the community”
Tucker spearheads the local Brownfield Development Project, which began several months ago in conjunction with the OCC, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Kansas State Universities-Technical Assistance for Brownfields program. Over forty Brownfield sites have been identified in the area.
“This project, initiated by a local businessman, lead to a broad partnership of local, state and federal agencies coming together to work with Okemah. These agencies were awed by the local input and energy of the local business leaders that came together during the public meeting process, and credit the local involvement in the selection of this grant for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission,” Tucker said. “This could not have been successful if not for the leadership and hard work of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and Kansas State University-TAB on behalf of our Community. This is truly an example of a perfect public-private partnership.”
On March 3, a “community visioning session,” organized by Tucker, was held to gain public input regarding the reuse and redevelopment of the local Brownfield sites. Twenty eight people, including local businesspeople and city officials, attended the meeting and brainstormed about ways the properties could be reused. Some of the ideas tossed around at the meeting included an armory museum and events center, a brewery and steak house, community gardens, housing for senior citizens and walking trails that incorporate a dog park/splash park.
The grant application was submitted by Madeline Dillner, OCC Brownfield Project Coordinator. “The arrival of I-40 in the 1970s was both a blessing and a curse to Okemah. Its arrival has kept Okemah’s population steady at about 3,000, while other rural towns in eastern Oklahoma have shrunk to the double digits,” Dillner wrote in the application.
“I-40 provides a steady trickle of visitors to Okemah’s downtown, and a quick way for residents to go to work. Every year in July, thousands of people from all over the world use I-40 to flock to Okemah’s Woody Guthrie Festival. But Okemah’s main arterial roads of bygone days are struggling. Highway 62 and Broadway Streets used to be the main routes for people traveling between Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Oklahoma City. During the oil boom of the 1920s, Okemah’s population swelled to 7,000 people. Gas stations started popping up on every corner. Trucks heading from manufacturing facilities to the oilfields needed fuel, and Okemah was there. As a result of all this traffic, inside the 2 square miles of the City of Okemah, there are 55 identified gas stations, and 45 of those are now abandoned, their tanks rusting beneath the ground,” Dillner wrote.
Grants awarded by EPA’s Brownfields Program provide communities across the country with an opportunity to transform contaminated sites into community assets that attract jobs and achieve broader economic development outcomes, while taking advantage of existing infrastructure. For example, Brownfields grants are shown to increase local tax revenue and residential property values.
A study of 48 Brownfield sites found that an estimated $29 million to $97 million in additional local tax revenue was generated in a single year after cleanup. This is two to seven times more than the $12.4 million EPA contributed to the cleanup of these sites. Another study found that property values of homes near revitalized Brownfield sites increased between 5% and 15% following cleanup.
“This program provides an investment that pays very real dividends to the taxpayer, turning an environmental liability into a property that is an asset to the community,” said OCC Chair Tim Heitt. “I am proud of the work of the OCC Brownfields staff and grateful for the assistance of the EPA.”
Those interested in learning more about the Okemah Brownfield Project should contact Tucker at (918) 623-6579 or via email at [email protected]. Additional information may be found at the following link: https://the-okemah-brownfields-project-occokc.hub.arcgis.com/