Buffalo is starting to knock the rust off its long-dormant industrial sites and turn them into homes for new ventures.
But the effort is hampered by ignorance about new, rust-busting development tools that help pay for pollution cleanup.
Also holding the region back are memories of its notorious brownfields disaster.
"When you think 'brownfield' you tend to think 'Love Canal,' " said Chris Johnston, a senior official in Buffalo's economic development department.
Fears of chemical contamination, whether grounded or not, continue to block the reuse of land that held steelmakers and other factories in Buffalo's industrial heyday.
That was the consensus at a panel discussion Wednesday that brought together experts from state and local government, real estate developers and insurers.
The Brownfields in Western New York discussion, held at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership downtown, drew about 60 people from construction, lending, real estate and other firms connected with industrial redevelopment.
It's a central topic for a Rust Belt capital. Vast tracts of what used to be prime industrial land now lie dormant, blocking new industry -- or sending it to the suburbs -- while contributing little to city coffers. Buffalo has identified 165 acres as high-priority potential redevelopment sites, Johnston said.
New tools for brownfields development are available, such as lucrative tax credits for buyers of polluted sites. Meanwhile, environmental insurance policies can shield buyers from an undiscovered pollution nightmare.
Despite brownfields success stories -- such as the redevelopment of the downtown site of the HealthNow headquarters, and the 245-acre Lakeside Commerce Park at the Union Ship Canal, many are unaware of the opportunities, experts said.
"It seems to be the best kept secret around," said Martin Doster, regional engineer at the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
There are two dozen sites in the state's brownfields program around Western New York, he said. The program provides credits on property taxes and corporate income taxes to support soil and groundwater cleanup. Up to about 22 percent of cleanup costs are refundable, plus up to a 25 percent credit on property taxes. There's also a credit for pollution insurance, worth half the premiums up to a maximum of $30,000.
Still, "I get calls every week -- people don't have a clue what the tax incentives are," Doster said.
For the builder who developed two industrial sites at Lakeside Commerce Park, the incentives made a "huge difference."
"Brownfields are economics driven," said Peter Krog, chairman of Krog Corp. "People want to go where they can get the best deal available."
Thomas Kucharski, president of the marketing organization Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, said the region should build a fund to clean up sites in order to attract more businesses.
"Non-remediated brownfields sites are a non-starter with entities outside the region," he said.
However, recent brownfield breakthroughs help demonstrate the potential for recycling old areas, he added. "We take people around the region; when we drive around the I-90, there's a brand-new building," he said, referring to the HealthNow headquarters on West Genesee Street, which was built atop a 19th-century coal processing site.
The past several years also have seen the development of insurance products that reduce a property buyer's risk of higher-than-expected cleanup costs, insurers say. The policies are now getting more competitive as underwriters improve their technical expertise and get better at measuring environmental risk, said Joseph W. Quarantello Jr., senior vice president of Marsh USA's environmental practice. Marsh sponsored the brownfields talk.
Limiting risk is close to a developer's heart, Krog said.
"You can do a lot of testing on a site," he said, "but you really don't know until you dig."