In 1995, a new term was being tossed around the environmental and redevelopment community. It was called ‘Brownfields’ and it was being used to describe the various commercial and industrial properties left behind in the wake of the mass exodus of businesses and manufacturing firms from the once thriving central core of communities across the country. These businesses were moving to the less expensive or otherwise unencumbered ‘greenfields’ on the outskirts of town that were closer to the interstate highways systems. Many of the remaining downtown areas had become blighted assemblies of abandoned, idled, or under-used structures that, often times, had a perception of environmental issues that needed to be addressed. As a result of this perception and the aggressive approach the federal government was using to enforce cleanup of contaminated sites, many of these “Brownfields’ became a challenge to market for reuse either through renovation or redevelopment. These areas soon fell into states of disrepair that invited blight and slum conditions.
As a possible solution, members of the 104th Congress began to consider the concept of offering federal economic incentives to communities that had taken ownership of these challenged sites through tax foreclosures or other liens when the original owners had just walked away from the daunting tasks of site restoration and redevelopment they were facing. It was recommended to be a voluntary program in which certain incentives, both financial and legal, would be offered to assess and cleanup the sites in anticipation of community redevelopment. In 1996, in order to determine the viability of such a program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) established a ‘pilot program’ to evaluate the feasibility of Brownfields Redevelopment. Florida was one of the first states to see the immense value in this emerging concept and, in 1997, established its own Brownfields Redevelopment Act.
Before the Florida Brownfields Redevelopment Act was formally enacted, a group of environmental consultants, environmental attorneys, educators, developers, community activists, environmental insurance companies, and financial experts had already come together to educate themselves and assemble the information necessary to assist communities and community stakeholders in acquiring the benefits that the new Brownfields program was going to offer toward their redevelopment efforts. Through the interest of this group and their ever progressing expertise, communities in Florida were among the first of the USEPA 1996 Brownfields ‘Pilot’ Programs to be awarded federal grant funds. With funds directly from the USEPA or indirectly through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development (OTTED), communities like Clearwater, Miami, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, Gainesville, and Ocala obtained Brownfields Redevelopment grant funds that allowed them to set up Brownfields Programs and assist their community on the way to economic revitalization. With the first available funds they were able to identify, catalog, and monitor potential Brownfields sites and eventually contract to have environmental site assessments conducted on suspect sites. It was not long before contaminated sites were being cleaned up and redeveloped using additional federal grant funds and the ambitious concept of redeveloping Brownfields was becoming a reality.
Through the efforts of a semi-formal Florida Brownfields working group, the first annual Florida Brownfields Conference was held in Clearwater in 1998. It offered a variety of informative and educational sessions dealing with the new, national and state program focusing on cleaning up and redeveloping the many vacant, derelict sites found in communities throughout Florida and the remainder of the country. That conference was followed by a second annual conference held in Jacksonville. Building on the success of the first two, the working group continued its efforts with a conference in Miami Beach in 2000.
In late 2001, at their 4th Annual Florida Brownfields Conference, the informal working group of environmental professionals was exploring the possibility of formalizing their organization. By March 2002, the first formal meeting of the Florida Brownfields Association (FBA) was convened in Orlando. In August of the same year, the FBA incorporated and a Board of Directors was constituted. Shortly thereafter, the Association received recognition as a non-profit 501(c)(6) organization.
Also in 2002, convinced of the value of the Brownfields Redevelopment Program, the President of the United States signed into law the long term Brownfields Revitalization and Small Business Liability Relief Act. Spurred on by this landmark legislation, the FBA membership expanded its efforts and began receiving national recognition for their work in the Brownfields landscape. In 2002, the FBA held its first Brownfields Conference as a formal association in Pensacola, and St. Petersburg hosted the 2003 conference. In 2004, despite the hurricanes that forced the postponement of the event for an entire month, the FBA Brownfields conference was held in Sarasota. 2005 saw the conference return to Jacksonville and in 2006 the conference was held in Miami. The 2007 conference is planned to take place in Orlando. Each year, attendance and participation has grown with speakers, sponsors and exhibitors from all over the country, lending diverse and valuable Brownfields experience to attendees. The broader participation has provided increased diversity of educational venues, more potential for networking with the experts, and overall improvement in community outreach opportunities.
The FBA officers and membership continue to raise their level of knowledge, information, and experience by participation in educational venues at National and Regional Brownfields Conferences. They do this voluntarily in order to maintain the integrity of the organization and to be able to provide the assistance requested from communities and agencies throughout the state. The FBA remains up to date with the latest information on innovations in remediation technology, redevelopment concepts, liability protection at state and federal levels, available funding from numerous sources, community outreach programs, as well as the many other financial and legal incentives that may tie in with the Brownfields program. The future of the organization has unlimited potential as it continues to grow in diversity of membership, partnerships, interest, expertise, and programs. As the movement moves beyond its first decade of existence, the Florida Brownfields Association is already developing the next generation of Brownfields milestones envisioned to spur more active redevelopment with an eye toward preserving our vital and limited natural resources.