I recently attended the Noblesville Mayoral Candidate debate at Noblesville High School and one of the questions asked was how to best develop the former Firestone plant, an abandoned 70-acre site along Division Street, between 15th and 18th streets.
Frankly, I was a bit disappointed with the answers given by the four candidates currently running for Noblesville mayor. It seemed as if they had not studied all of the options. Most piggy-backed on plans to build a new police headquarters on the still-contaminated site — plans the city administration has been publicly pursuing for nearly two years.
Bridgestone Firestone operated its auto parts manufacturing plant in Noblesville for 72 years, before closing the plant in 2009 and moving production to South America. The former 300-worker air-spring manufacturing plant has sat unused and vacant ever since. When they left, Firestone took the available option to avoid paying any property taxes by just removing the walls and ceiling of their structure and leaving the concrete slabs/floors. Declaring the site as contaminated and worthless is a typical method used by industries to avoid paying taxes.
According to local media reports, EPA officials said in 2017 the removal of PCBs and other pollutants from 17 acres on the site could be finished in a couple of years. An estimated 7,700 barrels of burned trash, rubber, solvent-based cement, sulfuric acid, limestone and cyanide waste remain buried deep underground the existing concrete slab and are too risky to dig up.
EPA officials said residential housing would never be allowed on the property, but other abandoned Bridgestone sites have been sold to tire makers and used for other industrial purposes. In 2017, the EPA cleared the property for industrial and commercial use, as long as future tests showed the groundwater was safe.
I understand the wheels of government move slowly, especially when you’re dealing with a contaminated site and the Environmental Protection Agency is involved. I used to work for the EPA to identify groundwater contaminants, and cleanup typically cost $1 million per acre in the 1980s. I’m sure that cost has only gone up since then.
During the recent mayoral debate, the candidates offered their hopes for developing the 9-year vacant site based on a wish list of somehow securing Super Fund monies to clear the site of all contaminants so city officials can build a 40,000-square-foot police headquarters for an estimated $14.1 million. The current police station on South Ninth Street houses about 95 employees in 14,340 square feet.
While I do not question the Noblesville Police Department’s need for more space, as I think we are overdue to build a modern facility to house our public safety officers, I do not want to put their lives in jeopardy by taking shortcuts on a contaminated site. I’m a strong supporter of providing the best public safety for the citizens of Noblesville and making sure our law enforcement has the best facilities in which to operate.
However, I question the need to build a new police headquarters in this location. The city’s $14.1 million estimate to build a new 40,000-square-foot police headquarters is only the cost for the actual building and doesn’t include any site clean-up costs. As a council member, I need to question the cost to taxpayers for any project. So, let’s play the numbers game for this project:
Option 1: City builds the police headquarters on the former Firestone site
- Cost of the land purchase
- Cost of completing 17-acre site clean-up at approximately $1 million per acre = $17 million
- Cost of new building estimated at $14.1 million (In comparison, Noblesville City Hall is about 40,000 square feet and cost $32 million to build)
- Total cost for city would start at $31 million and go up
Option 2: Allow developer to purchase and do complete clean-up of the site for a different use other than heavy industrial.
- Costs are unknown and most developers do not want to touch this because of the potential high cost of environmental clean-up and complexity of the project.
Option 3: Allow developer to build on the site under its current industrial use with existing EPA permissions and no further underground clean-up. The city could provide an incentive to developer in exchange for recapping the concrete slab to protect from future groundwater contamination.
- The developer’s cost would be the same as if they poured concrete and built their new building on virgin ground. Tax-increment financing could be used as an incentive to improve this long-blighted area in our Southeast Quadrant.
For much of the 20th century, Firestone was Hamilton County’s biggest employer. While city officials have been wringing their hands for the last nine years waiting for Firestone/EPA to complete environmental testing on the site, we could have moved forward by identifying another industrial manufacturer to take it over.
People in Noblesville want better, higher-paying jobs. They want more commercial businesses to move into our great city, so our tax rates go down. Let’s attract new businesses to add to our commercial tax rolls and bring new jobs.