Long road to Johns Manville revitalization continues

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
A sign marks the site of the former Johns Manville plant in Denison. The DDA and city are still working to acquire the former plant in order to remediate and redevelop the site.

For more than a decade, Denison has worked toward cleaning up a former industrial site on one of its major gateways. Now, all that is holding it back is a simple signature.

The Denison Development Alliance is still waiting for final company approval for the purchase of the former Johns Manville plant, which will allow the city the final clean up the industrial site after more than 30 years of vacancy, and put the land back into productive use.

The city made progress on this goal last year when it signed a purchase agreement in August with JM Eagle for about $67,000. However, progress has since gone quiet. Meanwhile, the DDA is getting a clearer picture of the potential cost to remediate the former site.

"Everything needed to close has been agreed upon for months," DDA President Tony Kaai said. "The only thing left is a basic resolution from the company stating who has authority to sign closing documents. It is pretty basic, but we've been waiting on that for several months. That's it.

"We still don't have an answer as to why. We've been told it's coming, it's coming but we don't have it."

The plant first opened its doors in the mid-1950s and at its peak had about 500 employees. The site primarily focused on the manufacturing of transit pipe, which was made from a combination of concrete and asbestos fibers.

Since the 1970s, asbestos has gone out of use as a construction material due to its carcinogenic properties. In the years that followed, the site dwindled to just 100 employees before it closed its doors in 1988.

The city signed an agreement for the nearly 480-acre site in August for just $67,000. At the time, the Kaai this is, in effect, a donation by JM Eagle as the payment would offset the cost of surveying work related to the transfer of land.

However, Kaai said that city officials do not have a firm idea of when the documents could be signed, and the agreement made official. It could be days, weeks or months.

The removal of asbestos in existing buildings has proven to be a difficult process that requires specialized techniques and equipment that can prove costly. At times, this has become a barrier for redevelopment or demolition of sites containing the material.

In the case of  Johns Manville, the material is used in some of the siding and other materials on site. Initially, the  DDA estimated that the cost of remediating the asbestos on the usable portion of the land would be about $2 million based on bids from about 18 months ago. However, this estimate has since changed and these initial bids are now consider illegitimate.

Early plans called for the building to be demolished as is, and the asbestos would then be collected and disposed of. An additional two-feet of dirt at the site would also be removed as a part of the process.

However, Kaai said this plan does not meet public health requirements and the asbestos material would need to be removed prior to demolition. This will increase the cost of the project significantly. Currently, Kaai estimated that the project will now cost between $4 million and $6 million to complete.

The DDA and the city have many options of how to pay for this additional cost. Kaai said the DDA could utilize grants through the Economic Development Administration. Currently, the EDA is working with the DDA for funding for planning stages of the project. However, this could potentially extend into future phases, Kaai said.

"They want to be sure that the site has value, can be redeveloped and is sellable, which is a great site for that," he said.

Other possibilities include using cash on hand from the DDA with possible loans to make up the difference in price, Kaai said. Regardless of how it is funded, Kaai said the remediation of the site will continue to be a priority.

"We need to get it done, if we don't get it done, it will be there for eternity," he said. "So the mission is to get it done, and we will continue to work out the details as we move forward."

Once remediated, Kaai said plans are to convert the land to a light industrial park, with some consideration toward warehouse or other uses.