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BUFFALO LOOKS TO EUROPE, RUST BELT CITIES FOR ANSWERS TO BROWNFIELD QUESTIONS

Buffalo is about to gather some Old World wisdom about what to do with its inventory of vacant, often-polluted former industrial lands.

More than 200 community leaders, developers and officials from four countries will gather here Monday for a two-day conference on reusing old industrial sites, or so-called brownfields, according to officials.

In part, the talks will focus on redevelopments in several areas of Germany and Spain that share similar histories and problems with Buffalo and other U.S. Rust Belt cities.

Local officials also hope to pump new energy into the search for reuses for Buffalo's old manufacturing plant sites, including the huge South Buffalo brownfield, which has attracted only one major development in the past year.

"There's a lot to be learned . . . These are comparable regions to Buffalo, so we looked to see what the best of Europe have done...They are light years ahead of us," said Kevin T. Greiner, one of the planners of the conference.

According to Greiner, the workshops "are about learning from successful brownfield redevelopments ... And we hope to be using it to move our agenda forward."

The two-day workshop, starting with Mayor Masiello's welcoming speech at 8:30 a.m. in the Marine Midland Center Auditorium, is dubbed: "Reclaiming Our City and Region: Rethinking Brownfields."

Masiello is expected to tell the group that problems and solutions discovered in Europe may provide action plans for Buffalo, and vice-versa.

Response to the workshops has been strong and organizers have exceeded their capacity with more than 240 persons registered so far. Anyone interested in attending should first contact the Center for Local Governance and Regional Growth at 829-3777 to see if space is available, Greiner said.

Sponsors include the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, the US Environmental Protection Agency, German Marshall Fund of the United States, Environment Canada, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation (BERC).

According to Greiner, executive vice president for economic development for BERC, the workshop is the latest round of an exchange program between European localities and U.S. cities such as Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago.

Recently, he and others visited Amsterdam, London, several German cities, as well as Bilbao, Spain, a former industrial seaport that is rebuilding its containerized shipping port and transforming its image with a new world-class art museum and an opera house.

"These are regions with very similar industrial histories ... All have similar economic problems, job problems, political problems...The real focus of the conference is...learning from this experience," he said.

The first day of the conference will be used to examine the European projects and the second will be devoted to planning and developing strategies for Buffalo area brownfields.

The city's largest brownfield, a 1,400 acre track stretching from the Buffalo River south to the Lackawanna border, has seen little new development action since early, 1998, when a new hydroponics farm was opened on the site of the former Republic Steel Plant.

However, Greiner said talks continue with possible developers, and the city has completed or started other projects at other former brownfield sites.

The hope is the workshops will stimulate new ideas and information based on European experiences.

Cities featured will include:

Gelsenkirchen and Oberhousen in Germany's Ruhr Valley -- where 13 communities have worked together to clean up polluted sites and create a regional park system, including former steel plants that have been turned into parks, and coal mines that were turned into restaurants, retail centers and job training institutes.

Dessau, Bitterfeld, Wolfen and Wittenberg -- former East Germany cities that faced massive contamination and widespread unemployment. They have converted a huge coal-fired electric plant into a co-generation facility, an exhibition hall, art space and an industrial culture museum.

A large former strip mine is also being converted into a lake surrounded by housing and an industrial culture theme park, complete with an innovative 20,000 seat amphitheater.

Leuna -- a Central German city where the government has spent nearly 9 billion Deutsche marks modernizing a large chemical plant.

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