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Brownfield hunting in the wild, wild west

Helping communities find funding for site reuse and revitalization

Submitted by Megan Wall (Bellevue, WA)

Last month I had the chance to walk the charming, brick-paved streets of Trinidad, Colorado. Founded in 1842 as a trading center on the Santa Fe Trail, Trinidad later evolved from a small adobe village into a Victorian jewel. With a diverse economy fueled by coal mining, coke production, ranching, and railroads, the area prospered until the 1930s, when the Depression and declining coal industry launched an era of steady population decline. Once home to more than 30,000 residents, today Trinidad has a population of just over 8,000.

Strolling along Main Street, it’s easy to envision a once bustling western town. Turn of the century Victorians ooze history. Some of the historic storefronts now house small shops and eateries, but most of these grand old buildings are abandoned. We turn onto Plum Street. My tour guide, Louis, Trinidad’s idea-rich city planner, says that the entire street is vacant. A lumber company. A sign shop. A rubber company. All shuttered -- windows boarded, crumbling.  Louis stops to point out a partial brick wall where a building once stood. “We lost another one over there.” 

Despite this hard-luck story, it’s difficult to resist Trinidad’s charms. There’s hope here. Louis guides us along the Purgatoire River, which runs through town. He’s chatting about the effect of the elevated highway on small-town America. “If we could just get people off the freeway…”

Gazing up at the iconic “TRINIDAD” sign perched atop Simpson’s Rest, an archetypal southwestern bluff overlooking the city, I can’t help think of Radiator Springs – if you have kids (or like animated movies about cars), you know what I mean. I’m humming “Life is a Highway” as we trek onward – swarms of grasshoppers jumping at our feet – to a vista high enough to get a glimpse of the future. From here, we see the former rail line, overgrown and outstretched through the valley toward Trinidad Lake State Park. With state grant money, the City hopes to acquire the land along the old rail spur to build a trail – a recreational amenity that might just lure folks off the interstate and convince them to stay a while.

The timing is right. Louis points toward a mesa south of town: JE Canyon Ranch. It’s for sale. And, at over 46,000 acres, it’s one the largest remaining ranches in the nation. With 9 miles of river access, a mosaic of interconnected red rock canyons, trophy game hunting, and views clear to Pikes Peak, the ranch has attracted the attention of Colorado State Parks and the National Parks Service. Quiet Trinidad could become the gateway to our next national treasure. 

Back in town, Louis shows us an area right off I-25 where a local developer has quietly amassed property along the rail tracks, envisioning a future hotel, restaurants, and shops – a destination. It will take a great deal of work and considerable funding to return Trinidad to its former glory, but the locals know that in order for the town to survive, it must adapt. 

When people think of brownfields – if they know what brownfields are – they usually think Rust Belt. Cleveland, not Colorado. But Trinidad is full of brownfields. Those old Victorian charmers? Long histories of commercial and industrial uses – not to mention the lead and asbestos. That new trail? Creating greenspace along a former rail corridor will require large-scale environmental site assessment. That’s where we come in.

My team writes grants to help communities, like Trinidad, secure funding for environmental assessment and cleanup through the EPA Brownfields Program and other state initiatives. We’ve travelled throughout the western US to market and implement brownfield grants. On this trip, we spent a hopeful afternoon with Louis, toured the highest incorporated city in America with a resident who owns 13,000 acres of mine-scarred land in and around Leadville, and met with city planners in Pueblo who are investigating converting a power plant into a downtown attraction – complete with climbing wall. Every community has a story. Brownfield redevelopment helps write the next chapter, creating jobs, affordable housing, greenspace… communities.

Megan is a project coordinator and grant writer in Stantec’s Bellevue, WA office.  Last week Megan and team represented Stantec at the Re-Using Contaminated Land Conference in Seattle, where our own Chris Gdak joined a panel discussion on paying for cleanup. Together, Chris and Megan have secured over $2.4M in funding for communities in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado over the last three years.

When people think of brownfields – if they know what brownfields are – they usually think Rust Belt. Cleveland, not Colorado.

Megan Wall

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