Empowering Communities: Okemah experiencing regrowth due to Brownfields Project
Like a landmark to a history long forgotten, many rural highway towns are dotted with abandoned gas stations.
Cars began traveling further on a single tank of gas, chains displaced family-owned shops, and interstate systems pushed traffic out of city centers.
Once thriving business, like the almost 50 gas stations around the city of Okemah began to go under, and have sat, devoid of life, for decades.
However, Okemah Economic Development Director Andy Tucker says that story is under revision.
A $300,000 investment by the Environmental Protection Agency is helping turn unused old gas stations into new places of commerce with the Brownfields Project.
The Brownfields Project is a grant program aimed at accessing and cleaning up properties potentially contaminated by hazardous waste.
As of August 2, three properties in Okemah have been enrolled in the project, allowing the entities who purchased the properties to have environmental site assessments performed at no charge.
“The property has been upgraded and what was once an eye sore on the highway is coming back to life,” Tucker said. “The interior of the building is amazing, and the new owners plans for the exterior will be a great addition to the community. Another property is in the process of being completely redone and the other is cleaned up and ready for whatever the new owners decide they want to do with it.”
The program is orchestrated by Oklahoma Corporation Commission Project Coordinator Madeline Dillner, whose efforts ensured that Okemah was the first town in the state of Oklahoma to receive the EPA funds. OCC’s partnership with Okemah is the first of its kind in the nation when it comes to EPA Community-Wide Brownfields Assessment grants.
“She has been a tireless leader for the program locally. None of this would have happened without her effort,” Tucker said.
More than half of the grant funds allocated toward brownfield sites in Okemah are still available to be accessed by entrepreneurs who are interested in purchasing old properties and setting up shop in the hometown of Woody Guthrie.
“One of the interesting things about this program is that the properties must sell or ‘trade hands’ to be eligible for this assistance,” Tucker said. “This is an unusual element of the program and creates the perfect environment for entrepreneurs to be able to buy a historic building on one of the busiest streets in Okemah and at a good price.”
This program has connected Okemah to other partners and opportunities for growth, including a downtown revitalization project that is beginning next month. This project has also put the state of Oklahoma on the map, as the semi-annual National Brownfields Training Conference, previously held in Pittsburgh and Las Angeles, will be held in Oklahoma City this year.
East Central Electric Economic Development Representative Lylah Sparks said, “Commitment to community is one of our core principles at the cooperative. We are excited to watch the communities in our service area grow and utilize their full potential for success.”