A new source of $800,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency will help Gary, East Chicago and Hammond clean up old industrial sites.
The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority will set up a new brownfield revolving loan program for the three cities.
The EPA requires sites potentially that could be contaminated with hazardous materials, known as a brownfield, to be tested before any new projects break ground. If any materials are detected, they have to be cleaned up.
"It could come from a former gas station, or a dry cleaner that uses a hazardous chemical that contaminates the site," said Brenda Scott-Henry, director of Green Urbanism and Environmental Affairs for Gary. "Anything from heavy metals to oils and chemicals."
"The thing with brownfields is that in urban areas, space is and isn't available," said Richard Morrisroe, the East Chicago City Planner. "Those spaces aren't always shovel ready."
That hidden cost below the surface makes it harder to find the right buyer, said David Wellman, communication director for the RDA.
"If you have a choice between an uncontaminated location," Wellman said, "or a location that will cost you maybe half a million more because you have to clean it up, you'll be more inclined to go to the uncontaminated site."
Those opportunities for unused land, or greenfield development, tend to be farther south, putting the cities in North Lake County at a disadvantage.
In a perfect world, Wellman said, the previous owner of the property would take care of cleaning costs. But in reality, it's hard to prove who caused the contamination, or the company closed and can't pay back any cleanup costs.
In order to attract more economic development to the north, the brownfield revolving loan will offer small loans to cover the up-front costs for cleanup. The city pays back the loan, allowing the RDA to restore the $800,000 for future use.
Gary has received a number of grants from the EPA to help deal with brownfield cleaning, said Scott-Henry, including a grant to train 100 workers in brownfield cleaning and testing between 2007 and 2012.
Gary also has had its own EPA-issued revolving loan fund of $1 million since 2009.
Wellman said the new brownfield redevelopment program should begin this summer. A governing board with representatives from each city, the RDA, and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission will determine who receives loans.
"Our goal is to help these three cities in their economic development," Wellman said.