THE REVITALIZATION OF NEW ENGLAND BROWNFIELD MILL SITES
Mill Towns

For years, mills were the driving force of economic prosperity across hundreds of towns in New England. As times changed and industries evolved, manufacturers moved away from the mill model in lieu of a cheaper alternative, sending New England towns into economic despair. Now, a revitalization effort is well underway to transform these once-abandoned mills into job-building powerhouses. We’ll learn what it takes to flip these mills and the impact it makes on the economy on a local level.

By documenting the people and companies whose livelihood depends on their mill, Mill Town will speak through the many voices of the mill and their towns, broadcasting a message to audiences about the wealth environmental and socioeconomic changes a revitalization effort can bring to the community.

Mill Town is for the people – a documentary with a cinematic gaze aimed to bring environmental and economic prosperity to mill towns. We’ll immerse audiences in the past, present, and future of mills and mill towns, showcasing the profound changes happening in real time.

“Here in New England, the character is strong and unshakable.” — Norman Rockwell

the why

The decline of manufacturing industries in America left a vacancy in the towns where mills played a vital role in the local economy. Left to languish, these brownfield mill sites are scattered all across New England.

In January 2002, the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act was signed into federal law. By definition, Brownfields are “Real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” Essentially, a Brownfield site is a property where re-development is impeded because of contamination, real or perceived. The key benefits of Brownfields redevelopment include:

  • The protection of public health and the environment through cleanup of commercial/industrial properties;
  • Slowing of “urban sprawl” by encouraging reuse of properties;
  • Increased tax revenues;
  • Use of existing infrastructure (e.g. roads, rail, water, sewer);
  • The creation of new jobs; and
  • The revitalization of declining commercial/industrial based communities

OUR PURPOSE 

To partner with communities, businesses and developers to showcase the economic uplift and environmental benefits of restoring and inhabiting these historic mill spaces, while encouraging and supporting continued development initiatives.

THE CHALLENGE

Community concerns often center on public health issues. Areas with one or more brownfields commonly experience disinvestment over time. In addition to known, unknown or perceived environmental health threats from contaminants at a site, the area may experience hazards due to other community challenges, including:

Safety Risks

Abandoned and derelict structures, open foundations, compromised infrastructure or equipment (due to lack of maintenance, vandalism or deterioration), controlled substance sites (i.e., methamphetamine labs), and abandoned mine sites are examples of sites with safety risks. Proximity to flood zones or natural hazard areas may be of concern due to the potential to mobilize contaminants and contribute to structural deterioration.

Social and economic factors

Blighted areas with higher crime, vagrancy and/or vacancy rates lead to declining property values, reduce the local government tax base and the availability of social services in brownfield communities. Reduced social capital or lost community connections often contribute to a deteriorating quality of life for residents in brownfield areas.

Environmental health

Industrial production or commercial activity, such as emissions, transportation and goods movements, site or groundwater contamination, surface runoff, migration of contaminants, wastes dumped on site or natural hazards can exacerbate potential biological, physical, or chemical dangers from nearby brownfield sites.

THE IMPACT

A study completed for EPA in 2020 looked at the environmental benefits that accrue when brownfield sites are used for redevelopment. The study found that when housing and job growth is accommodated by redeveloping existing brownfields sites, the expansion of paved impervious surfaces and average vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita/per job are reduced as compared to accommodating the same amount of growth on previously undeveloped sites.

KEY FINDINGS OF THE STUDY:

  • Brownfields are often “location-efficient” due to their central location and connections to existing infrastructure.This saves on infrastructure expense and prevents additional environmental degradation from building on greenfields.
  • 11-13% of the jobs and housing growth expected between 2013-2030 could be supported on brownfield sites.
  • Redeveloping brownfields reduces the amount of impervious surface expansion by 73-80%. Impervious surfaces do not allow stormwater to infiltrate the ground. Instead, stormwater runs off the site or roadway, picking up pollutants and contaminants along the way and contributing to the spread of contamination.
  • Brownfield sites tend to be in densely developed, centralized areas, redevelopment in these areas leads to shorter car trips and overall reduced car use due to more efficient home/work travel patterns. These efficient travel patterns reduce growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
  • Reduces residential VMT resulting from new growth by 25-33%, and reduces jobs-related VMT resulting from new growth by 9-10%.
  • These reductions produce important environmental benefits, including: improved water quality associated with reduced runoff from stormwater and nonpoint pollutant sources, and improved air quality associated with reduced greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle travel.
  • A 2017 study concluded that cleaning up brownfield properties led to residential property value increases of 5 – 15.2%

SUCCESS STORY

One town breathing a second life into a centuries-old textile mill is Taunton, MA. In 2005, Robertson on the River opened in the small city of 55,000, offering 64 “loft-style” affordable residential units and 18,000 square feet of commercial space. Up until recently, Robertson on the River was the old Robertson Mill; an abandoned, polluted 19th century mill in a bad part of town.

Almost 50 years later, this former textile mill has transformed into a beacon of hope for the community. Fully occupied (with a waiting list for residency), Robertson on the River and the surrounding town of serves as a model for smart growth in Massachusetts, taking a town from financial ruin to a flourishing town with riverfront green space, a playground, and a basketball court.

Robertson on the River proves the mill model is one worth replicating. Breathing life into abandoned mills is breathing life into the surrounding towns. Mill Stories takes audiences inside the mills and surrounding mill towns, exploring the revitalization effort from every perspective.