Erie County is taking the first step toward turning a significant portion of the long-abandoned Bethlehem Steel site from an industrial wasteland into an industrial park.
With a deal in place for the Erie County Industrial Development Agency to acquire nearly 148 acres of land along Route 5 from Dona Street to the south and just beyond Ridge Road to the north, county officials said the acquisition will put a swath of prime industrial land in local hands, with an eye toward turning it into a site that can be quickly developed by manufacturers.
"This project has the potential to set up advanced manufacturing in this community for the next generation," said Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte, who spearheaded the negotiations to acquire the property from Tecumseh Real Development for $6.7 million.
The land purchase, which is expected to close in four stages through the rest of this year, is part of a broader plan that also includes capping about two-thirds of the parcel by year-end to meet environmental requirements and clear the way for development.
A short rail spur also will be relocated away from Route 5 toward the center of the property. The deal also clears the way for the county to move forward on a plan to extend Dona Street in Lackawanna into the steel plant site.
It will also open the door for the bike path that runs along the Outer Harbor to be extended for about a mile along Route 5 to Dona Street, near the Smokes Creek bridge, with plans to eventually extend it farther south toward Woodlawn Beach. Tecumseh has agreed to donate the land for the bike path extension, which will be funded with a grant from the state, said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
"This is perfect for heavy industry or light manufacturing," Poloncarz said. "This is not park land."
Poloncarz, who has been talking with Tecumseh officials about buying a portion of the Bethlehem Steel site since he took office more than four years ago, said the deal also is noteworthy because it puts the property under the control of local officials, who have an incentive to move quickly on development proposals, rather than corporate executives in the Netherlands.
"It's so important. This is the 150 acres that are the most prime site for development," he said. "This is the type of thing that can be a game changer."
The purchase is part of a broader $10.8 million plan that includes not only the purchase of the property, but the rail line relocation and the bike path extension. The project will be funded by state money that the region received during the latest round of the Regional Economic Development Council awards last December.
Those steps will give the county a significant swath of land that can be quickly developed for light manufacturing or industrial use at a time when that type of shovel-ready site is in short supply, Poloncarz said.
"There is a lack of large acreage industrial parks in the Northeast for future light industrial and manufacturing development," he said, noting that the former Republic Steel site in South Buffalo, also known as the RiverBend complex, is the new home for the SolarCity solar panel factory.The IDA also operates the Buffalo Lakeside Commerce Park, located about a mile to the north, that has attracted companies like Certainteed and Cobey to an industrial park that also was created on a former industrial brownfield site that still has smaller sites available.
"If you think of Western New York, we have hardly any left. RiverBend was the last, and now that's full," he said.
Poloncarz believes the Bethlehem Steel site could be appealing to manufacturers because of its location near Lake Erie, as well as its quick access to railways and highways.
"It has access to rail. It has access to the water. It has access to truck transportation," Poloncarz said.
That portion of the Bethlehem site was mainly used for transportation and staging, rather than steel-making, so its environmental issues are less severe than on other parts of the Bethlehem property, Poloncarz said. Eventually, the county would like to acquire more of the Bethlehem Steel site, potentially using money from the sale of land in the 147-acre section to fund future purchases.
The zero net energy building that the Erie County IDA is planning to build will be located on the northern end of the property. Welded Tube, a tubing manufacturer that opened one of the first new facilities on the former steel site, is located next to the southern end of the parcel that the county is acquiring.
To prepare the property for development, the county will place a layer of cover material over the 100 acres farthest to the west of Route 5 beginning later this year. That portion of the property is expected to be ready for development next year, Whyte said. The remaining 50 acres closest to Route 5 also will be covered eventually.