Bowitch Assists the North Country Redevelopment Task Force on Reuse of General Motors Brownfield Site

Article published in Watertown Daily times on September 2, 0016  (website link or PDF)

North Country Redevelopment Task Force wants to change focus of marketing for former GM site

By Bob Beckstead

The local task force that’s working with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust to clean up and market the former General Motors site in Massena wants to change the focus of what they would like to see on the site once cleanup is complete.

RACER Trust’s mission is to clean up the properties that GM had not purchased back, including the land in Massena, and to reposition the properties for redevelopment, sale, economic growth and development in the impacted communities.

The initial indication by members of the North Country Redevelopment Task Force was that they wanted to see the site be used for industrial purposes. In a Sept. 14, 2011 letter to Bruce Rasher, RACER Trust redevelopment manager, they had indicated that preference for industrial use, and that’s how RACER officials have been marketing the site to potential customers.

But things have changed since then, task force members said during a meeting Thursday afternoon, and they would rather see a focus on recreation and tourism, initiatives that are also underway with the town and village of Massena.

That’s also a desire of some community members in Massena and Akwesasne who have participated in community visioning forums to discuss the development of a revitalization plan for the Massena Brownfield Opportunity Area, which encompasses 415 acres, including the former GM site. That work is being coordinated by a BOA Steering Committee, which includes representatives from the task force and a cross-section of other participants.

“With all due respect, if the task force and steering committee gives RACER a different view than 2011, I would hope RACER would adjust their marketing approach,” said Gary S. Bowitch, the attorney representing the task force.

“I just hope we don’t potentially put too much weight in the letter,” task force Chairman Anthony J. Arquiett said.

He said the letter was written at the time because it had been requested by RACER Trust, but five years had since gone by and the focus had changed.

“As we move forward, I hope we keep an open mind and don’t allow ourselves to be decided because of what the letter says,” Mr. Arquiett said.

Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray also shared his concerns about continuing to use the information in the 2011 letter. Mr. Gray said he and Mayor Timmy J. Currier had sent letters to RACER Trust in June, sharing their concerns about what seems to be a focus on industrial use for the site while it was being marketed.

“Their response was, ‘We’re operating under the 2011 letter,’” he said.

Mr. Gray said that was frustrating “when the top two officials say they’re concerned” about the focus and RACER responded by referencing the 2011 letter signed by Mr. Arquiett.

He said the North Country Redevelopment Task Force was not an official body and had no authority, and thus, their direction in the letter couldn’t be official.

“That is of increasing concern to me,” Mr. Gray said. “I’m concerned we may be spinning our wheels and focusing too much time on industrial.”

It was also a concern to RACER Trust Patricia A. Spitzley, who wondered who she should be working with — the task force as she had been for the last several years, the BOA steering committee, or Mr. Gray and Mr. Currier.

“She said the task force had been formed because they represented several entities who were impacted by the site, and there was also a designated group to speak with about the work that was being done.

“If the task force doesn’t speak for the village and the town, send us a letter that the task force does not speak for you and Mayor Currier. The direction we were given was from the task force,” Ms. Spitzley said.

She said they had received suggestions and evaluated potential users other than industrial, such as agricultural, retail, and the recreation and entertainment industries.

“If there’s a proposal, bring it to us and we’ll evaluate it. We need to have something to review and respond to,” Ms. Spitzley said.

“It comes back to the fact that elected representatives are speaking out,” and RACER Trust officials continue to follow the request in the 2011 letter, Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Bowitch suggested that the BOA Steering Committee, which has been working in part to identify potential uses for the site based on community input, could provide the information that RACER Trust needed in its marketing efforts.

“I think at the end of the BOA process it will reflect what the community wants,” he said.

Ms. Spitzley said they all had a common goal — to put the site to good use as part an effort that would help the community prosper. But she needed to know who she should be working with.

“If it ends up the mayor and the supervisor or the task force or the BOA, it’s not for RACER to decide,” she said.

BOA Project Coordinator Heidi Ames from the St. Lawrence County Planning Office said the BOA steering committee was no different than the task force, since it was a working group comprised of key stakeholders, including members of the task force. She noted that it was a project that included input from the county, town of Massena and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

“In July I asked Mayor Currier to be involved recognizing his work in the village,” she said. “The idea of stopping the task force and deferring to Joe and Tim to speak, I think, is getting ahead of ourselves.”

Ms. Ames said they knew from the beginning that the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe was not interested in an industrial use for the site.

“They have been here since the beginning,” and their input was contrary to what was addressed in the letter, she said. “Admitting we have a problem is the first step. We have disparity. It’s been glaring to us.”

She suggested a vision statement for the BOA could help them decide what direction to go with the site. Her draft vision that she presented to task force members on Thursday, based on goals identified during their community forums, read, “The Vision of the Massena BOA is a productive use that provides employment and tax revenue that contribute to the economic health of the region, while also improving environmental and human health conditions of those living, working or recreating proximate to the site.”

“I think that vision is really critical for this project. The vision is the tool developing the strategy. That’s one of the biggest challenges here. I think going through the BOA process brought a lot of the tools together,” Mr. Bowitch said.

“I do believe we are the ones in the best position,” Ms. Ames said.


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