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Redeveloping the Duofold site in Herkimer County

By Amaris Elliott-Engel

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PHOTO CREDIT: HERKIMER COUNTY INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCY

A long-vacant, 14-acre brownfield site in the village of Ilion has a rich history. 

In the 1800s, it was a racetrack. In the 1900s, bookcases for the Library of Congress, shells for the U.S. Navy, and adding machines were manufactured there. Univac made some of the first computers there. It was the site of the Herkimer County Community College for a time. And the building, now commonly known as the “Duofold” site in the Mohawk Valley, was also where Duofold processed long-john garments. 

Now, Herkimer County officials hope that the next phase in 7 Spruce St.’s history will be for redevelopment for a cybersecurity or artificial-intelligence firm.

“We want to see development here that will help the rest of Ilion rise up to another level,” says John J. Piseck, Jr., executive director of the Herkimer County Industrial Development Agency (HCIDA).

Piseck notes the success of Griffiss Business and Technology Park in Rome and the growth of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence in the area may make it a good site for a similar use in Ilion.

“We think that can flow over here,” Piseck says.

About a year ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded a $200,000 grant to HCIDA to assess brownfield sites throughout Herkimer County. The Duofield site is just one of them. Funding is available for phase I and phase II environmental site assessments.    

The first step to redevelop the Duofold site, which was purchased by the Village of Ilion in May 2019, was to conduct a phase I environmental site assessment.

During the phase I process, environmental consulting firm HRP Associates, Inc. investigated the entire history of the site to identify if there was a potential environmental contamination, says Thomas Seguljic, a regional sales manager with HRP, who has 30 years of experience in environmental-engineering consulting. HRP is based in Farmington, Connecticut and has upstate New York offices in the Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo areas.

“During phase I [of the environmental site assessment], you’re like Indiana Jones,” Piseck says. “You’re searching out the history.”

During the upcoming Duofold phase II assessment, samples will be collected to determine how extensive any environmental contamination is at the site from its past use for manufacturing, Seguljic says. He notes that the phase I study found that the level of environmental contamination was “nothing horrific. It’s manageable.” 

Once the phase II environmental study is done in two or three months, a remediation plan, subject to approval by regulators, will be developed and will allow Piseck to market the site to developers, Segulijic says. The phase II environmental study will be able to quantify how much it will cost to remediate the site for development, he says. That cost is not known yet.

Once the EPA and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation are satisfied that the study has adequately quantified the environmental contamination at the site, then a plan can be made for remediation, Seguljic says. 

The subsidies available to underwrite the cost of developing a brownfield site can set up a brownfield property to compete with greenfield sites for development, he says.

Quantifying the actual costs of remediation removes the unknowns for developers of what it would cost to bring a property back to life and can make a brownfield equal to, if even not more competitive, to a greenfield site, Seguljic says. For example, a brownfield site that already has water and electricity installed removes one worry for a developer, he says.

It also “removes the environmental stigma from these sites to breathe new life into these buildings,” Seguljic says. “Hopefully, it becomes a seed. If you can redevelop a brownfield, you can increase the property value right around that site and extend that out for quite a distance.”

Piseck points to the Duofold’s 169,000 square feet of redevelopment space, low-cost power at 3-cents a kilowatt, redundant high-speed fiber Internet, and proximity to Interstate 90 and Route 5 as attractive elements to a developer.

Earlier this year, the village of Ilion and other taxing authorities also approved an abatement on collecting property taxes for 10 years for whoever purchases the property, Piseck says.

He adds that there are multiple tax credits and other programs available to underwrite the cost of redeveloping the site such as opportunity zone, new market, historic rehabilitation, and brownfield tax credits.

In addition to the Duofold site, HCIDA has identified other viable brownfield sites in Herkimer County for development after looking at 25 to 30 sites, Piseck says.

HCIDA could not move forward with some sites for environmental studies if the property owners did not want to cooperate or if the viability of those sites for redevelopment did not seem very promising, Piseck says. For example, the agency looked at a landfill site for use as a solar installation but had to reject it because there was not a transfer station within reasonable distance, per Seguljic.

As part of the EPA grant, the abandoned L.W. Bills School on North Washington St. in Herkimer received a phase I environmental study and an asbestos study. As a result of those studies, Segulijic said the HCIDA was able to document that there were not any environmental concerns, and the property is better poised for redevelopment.

“The school has great bones there,” Piseck says.

Yet another site that is part of the EPA brownfield grant is the Quackenbush building at 220 Prospect Street in Herkimer, where the now-bankrupt company produced air rifles and nutcrackers.

HCIDA owns the building, but it is tied up in litigation over whether HCIDA is responsible for unpaid water bills, Piseck says. Long-term, the site is keyed to be redeveloped as affordable housing because of its location in the center of Herkimer.

The EPA grant will fund 10 phase I and four phase II environmental site assessments in Herkimer County. Ryan Biggs/Clark Davis Engineering & Surveying has been engaged in the brownfield project for structural assessment and Landmark Consulting has been engaged for its historic review services.

Until HCIDA received the EPA grant, nothing had been done with brownfield sites for 20 years in the county, Piseck says.

During the past two years, HCIDA has examined many of Herkimer’s brownfields to see what can be done to return them to use, engaged experts like HRP, obtained input from municipal leaders and citizens about their hopes for the brownfield sites, and has begun to market the brownfield sites, according to Piseck. 

“What we’ve done has really made a difference in the brownfield world in Herkimer County,” Piseck says. 

COVID-19 has slowed the process to be able to bring developers to see the brownfield properties that have been identified for the grant, he adds.

But Piseck is hopeful that the momentum that has been developing for rejuvenating Herkimer’s brownfields will continue. 

“This is the right time to be doing all these projects. Economic development shouldn’t slow down at all,” he says.               

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