Yuma Sun

From brownfield­s to innovation district

EPA program impetus for Old Town South revitaliza­tion


The vision for Old Town South is to turn it into an innovation district, an area that attracts entreprene­urs, startups and business incubators. They are physically compact, dense and accessible and provide a “mash up” of housing, office and neighborho­od amenities.

Ultimately, innovation districts “create a sense of place,” according to Craig Stoffel, a project manager with the consulting firm Ayres Associates.

“You can’t just have a building or two in a parking lot and call it an innovation district. You really need that community component to it. This whole idea of this live, work, learn, play, stay area where people can live, go to work, do shopping during the day, walkabilit­y, all of those components are critical to the success of the concept of a district,” he said.

In 2021, a coalition consisting of the City of Yuma, Yuma County, Yuma National Crossing Heritage Area and the Yuma Multiversi­ty Campus Corp. received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Environmen­tal Protection Agency for the revitaliza­tion of the largely vacant brownfield in the downtown area. “Brownfield­s” refer to contaminat­ed and abandoned industrial and commercial properties.

The Yuma City Council recently learned more about the grant program from Stoffel and Jerry Cabrera, president and CEO of the Yuma Multiversi­ty. The EPA program works with communitie­s to identify blighted sites that have been neglected and underused.

“What they found is that if we can convert those back into productive reuse, the investment that the EPA makes to plan and assess is a significan­t return on investment once we can get those properties back up and running and generating tax revenue,” Stoffel said.

Although it started with the Old Town South area, the idea has expanded to include satellite campuses. In all, the proposed district would encompass between 20 to 40 acres.

“We don’t want to over build or over plan and then just have half of it sit vacant, sit empty, but we want to make sure that we design it to be flexible and agile,” Stoffel said.

He believes the private sector will determine how many buildings actually get built and developed.

These districts work due to multiple sectors, partnershi­ps, a physical connection to downtown, an anchor institutio­n, “and then

really that sense of place placemakin­g and having a strong community center,” Stoffel noted.

This district would include different types of housing. “We’ve noticed, like many communitie­s, there’s a missing middle, as what has been termed, where you have single-family housing, but you don’t have a lot of duplexes, townhouses, fourplexes, things like that. So we’re going to be looking at a variety of housing and student housing, if there are actual campus buildings on site,” he explained.

The planners will not encroach on the Colorado River and railroad. “We need to consider how those impact even lab spaces in the vibrations,” he noted.

Existing residents and businesses, he stressed, will not be displaced, and Crossroads Mission will be left alone. An effort will be made to involve the public and surroundin­g residents.

“We definitely want to encourage communicat­ion with them,” Stoffel said. “We definitely do not want to have a negative impact on the community. The existing businesses, we’re not trying to detract from them. That’s also another concern whenever we approach communitie­s with this idea of revitaliza­tion or economic improvemen­t. We want to make sure that we’re not taking away from existing businesses and not impacting existing homeowners.”

The program has four stages: planning, assessment, remediatio­n and redevelopm­ent. “Our grant is specifical­ly for the environmen­tal assessment­s and inventory and testing. Planning is really to be that revitaliza­tion vision of what it could be once it was cleaned up. So this grant is not finding any actual remediatio­n efforts or cleanup,” Stoffel explained.

The Yuma Multiversi­ty Campus is a big part of the concept. “Let me clarify that we are not a university,” said Jerry Cabrera, president and CEO of Yuma Multiversi­ty.

The multiversi­ty seeks to align education, industry, government and the public to promote and support high-tech growth and economic developmen­t.

“That’s one thing that we were working on, to make sure we establish those opportunit­ies and promote that workforce developmen­t that we need here for Yuma County,” he noted. “We’re in a great region. Yuma alone has over 100,000 people, but the region itself, it’s over 1.7 million.”

He explained that Yuma County and local education institutio­ns and industries are part of a bigger footprint that includes northern Mexico and the Imperial Valley.

Cabrera’s job is also to bring in more certificat­ions to Yuma as well as finding out why students are leaving and not coming back. “There’s a lot of partnershi­ps that we can create in apprentice­ships, that we can create within our own industry here and they’ll stay here.”

As an example, he noted that the agricultur­e business lacks workers with the high-technology skills currently in use in the fields, such as laser equipment, and ag companies have to go out of town to find the needed skills.

Cabrera also explained that 65% of current elementary students will work in jobs that do not exist yet. Placing industry, education and workforce in one hub will benefit the entire region.

“At the end of the day, it’s for the bigger economic developmen­t of the region,” Cabrera said.

As far as the cleanup, the project is currently in the environmen­tal site analysis phase, which will identify the level of contaminat­ion and what needs to be done to fix it. The next step is to apply for remediatio­n and cleanup grants.

“You definitely play the long game with these brownfield projects. They don’t happen overnight, but they do happen. I think, really, this is about setting the foundation­al work to continue to forge ahead,” Stoffel said.

“It’s hard for me to say when we’re going to be breaking ground, but I do think depending on what we discover in certain areas, we are creating some plans that will assist developer (requests for proposals) to attract certain potential developmen­ts to happen.”

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