River Raisin Battlefield: Where Brownfield Reclamation Meets Historic Preservation

1205 East Elm Avenue, Monroe, Michigan

"While recognizing and returning the rich cultural history of our country is important in brownfield redevelopment, it is often overlooked for more traditional end uses, such as retail, commercial and residential. The River Raisin National Battlefield Park project is an wonderful example of what can be achieved while still preserving a culture's history."

Colleen Kokas
Brownfield Manager Office of Brownfield Reuse New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
Soil and Materials Engineers, Inc.

1. Did the project increase job opportunities in the community, or communities, surrounding the site?

Under the abandoned paper-mill buildings in northeastern Monroe, Michigan lies an historic jewel that has just begun to sparkle for the residents of the community, the State of Michigan, the Great Lakes region, and the entire country. Two facets of this jewelwhich is listed on both the Michigan and National Historic Registers and soon to be included in the National Park System-are the locations of the Battle of the River Raisin in the War of 1812 and the 1780s community of Frenchtown, the original settlement of Monroe.

The Frenchtown Settlement/River Raisin Battlefield site is considered by local and state experts to be one of the most important historic and archeological sites in Michigan. The City of Monroe, the State of Michigan, and the previous property owner, Homrich Incorporated, took advantage of an unprecedented opportunity to preserve history and turn this former industrial brownfield into a state and federal focal point for sustainable historic preservation, education, recreation, and tourism.

Successful completion of the brownfield-redevelopment plan for the site provides tourists, history buffs, archeologists, and historians an opportunity to increase their knowledge and understanding of early settlement of the region and the Battle of the River Raisin.

A study examining the potential economic impact and benefits related to the development of a visitors' center at the River Raisin battlefield site was conducted prior to the National Battlefield Park designation. One of the areas studied-increased dollar flowdemonstrated the potential for substantial increases in job creation, visitor spending, personal income, and sales related to historic tourism and interpretation of the battlefield site.

Results of that study are summarized below:

  • Estimated visits: 40,022 annually;
  • Total annual visitor spending: $4.48 million;
  • Total annual direct sales in region (multiplier effect of visitor spending): $4,354,000;
  • Jobs created (full & part-time): 110;
  • Personal income from jobs created: $1,747,000;
  • Increased tax revenue on spending: $259,000 annually;
  • Increased tax revenue on income: $47,000 annually;
  • Increased hotel tax revenue: $10,000 to $20,000 annually;

2. Did the project help to decrease local crime rates or to improve human health and safety?

For years, abandoned paper-mill buildings constituted a serious and imminent threat to public safety and welfare at the site. Children, teenagers, or others often illegally occupied the buildings as a place to play or conduct illegal activities. The City of Monroe and Soil and Materials Engineers, Inc. (SME) of Plymouth, Michigan, spent over seven years securing $3.2 million to pay for the environmental and demolition activities necessary to allow transfer of the East Mill historic parcel for preservation and interpretive redevelopment. The grant monies were used to demolish remaining buildings, remove PCB transformers and underground storage tanks, and address residual environmental issues, mitigating the threat to human health and safety. SME worked with archaeologists from the National Park Service, State of Michigan and Heidelberg University to develop environmental assessment and demolition strategies that would protect buried historic artifacts and resources.

Today, the River Raisin battlefield site is controlled by the Monroe County Historical Society, Monroe County and Port of Monroe. This presents the City of Monroe, State of Michigan, and National Park Service with a rare opportunity to make possible a variety of sustainable, public benefits:

  • Historic preservation: Few War of 1812 battlefields, especially of the importance of the River Raisin site, have been preserved and even fewer reclaimed. Preservation of the site will allow archaeologists to expand knowledge of the early settlers of Michigan and the Battle of the River Raisin. Successful redevelopment of the site as an interpretive center will expand educational and interpretive programs and attract more visitors to the site, Monroe, and Michigan.

  • Historic tourism: The expanded River Raisin battlefield site and National Battlefield Park designation will expand the site's attractiveness for tourists interested in Michigan and U.S. history, prehistoric and historic archaeology, military history, and history related to the War of 1812 specifically. The City of Monroe's Department of Community Development and Planning is pursuing development of an international War of 1812 Corridor that would connect important sites from Canada to Kentucky. Frenchtown and the River Raisin Battlefield will become a pivotal component of this corridor.

  • Recreation: The historic site lies between the City of Monroe and Sterling State Park on the shore of Lake Erie, one of the most visited parks in Michigan. A hike and bike trail to connect the park to the existing river walk and hike and bike trails in Monroe is under development.

3. What was most challenging about your project?

The greatest challenges were addressing issues that would allow Homrich Incorporated to donate the 30-acre historic portion of the site to the Port of Monroe, as a steward for preservation and archeology.

Transfer of the East Mill property was delayed for years while Homrich Incorporated, the future property owners, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked to resolve federal environmental liabilities that would transfer to a new owner. Between 1980 and 1981, the Union Camp Corporation stored hazardous wastes on the site in compliance with an interim-status permit issued under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This activity subjected the site to the requirements of state and federal corrective-action programs-a liability that transfers to any future owner of the property, regardless of whether they conducted any industrial or other operations on the site. The RCRA Corrective Action program requires the identification and investigation of all areas where any type of waste was handled or may have been released during the 80 years of mill operations. For a municipality or historic non-profit organization, the potential costs for complying with these requirements are prohibitive and an unacceptable burden of ownership.

SME worked with the City of Monroe, MDEQ, and EPA to develop a strategy for sufficiently mitigating potential, future federal liabilities to allow transfer of the East Mill site to the Port of Monroe. This strategy included a detailed environmental investigation to identify potential sources of impact and any existing significant contamination of soil and groundwater; a plan to remediate contamination areas of concern; a commitment by the MDEQ and EPA to issue a No Further Interest (NFI) Letter at the conclusion of environmental activities; and an environmental insurance policy.

The results of SME's environmental investigations revealed no significant impacts to groundwater and only a few subsurface environmental issues: several underground storage tanks and associated releases to soil, a former industrial waste disposal trench, and asbestos releases in damaged portions of the mill buildings.

After reviews of the assessment results and remediation plans, the regulatory agencies agreed to issue an NFI letter. At this point the City of Monroe secured through the Hylant Group of Cleveland, Ohio, commitment for $1 million in environmental cleanup insurance to protect future owners against possible future cleanup costs for unknown/undiscovered environmental contamination. The City of Monroe and SME worked together for seven years to secure $3.2 million to pay for the environmental remediation, demolition and site restoration activities that would finally allow property transfer of the East Mill historic parcel.

4. Did the project receive any loans, grants or financial assistance from any public or private organizations?

The funding keystone was a $1 million Clean Michigan Initiative brownfield redevelopment grant provided by the MDEQ. The city then secured a $1 million brownfield redevelopment loan from the MDEQ and a $1.2 million loan from a U.S. EPA Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund Grant managed by the Downriver Community Conference. These loans will be repaid with incremental taxes generated by other brownfield redevelopment projects in the city.

5. Could you describe the collaboration that occurred among multiple parties to enable the project?

For over a decade, the City of Monroe, Homrich Incorporated, the MDEQ and EPA worked together to develop environmental liability mitigation and remediation approaches to allow the company to donate-and a non-profit or municipal entity to accept-a 30-acre portion of the former paper mill site that encompasses much of the historic Frenchtown settlement and battlefield for preservation and archeology. The city, the MDEQ and the EPA identified and committed over $3.2 million in funding to address environmental issues at the former industrial facility, demolish existing buildings, and prepare the site for its future role. As discussed previously, property transfer was complicated because of federal RCRA Corrective Action liability, which follows property ownership.

The final path to preservation and national recognition began in 2006 when, after almost a decade of planning and negotiations, Homrich Incorporated transferred ownership of the East Mill historic parcel to the Port of Monroe to hold in trust while site cleanup and restoration and plans for preservation and interpretation were completed. That transfer followed final resolution of the two major issues that long blocked the successful redevelopment of this important site: 1) environmental liabilities and 2) funding for environmental remediation, building demolition, and site restoration.

The culmination of the work was the effort initiated and led by Congressman John Dingell to add the River Raisin battlefield to the National Park System. He sponsored and worked tirelessly to advance legislation needed to accomplish this feat. He also led the years-long effort to introduce Park Service staff to the battlefield site and convince them that a reclaimed brownfield could be successfully transformed into a National Battlefield Park.

On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed legislation designating the River Raisin Battlefield site as a National Historic Battlefield and initiating activities to transfer the property to the National Park Service. This is the first reclaimed brownfield site ever to be included in the National Park System and was the crowning moment for Congressman Dingell and the entire project team.

Commitment and action were the keys to the successful preservation of the River Raisin Battlefield and its inclusion in the National Park System. Homrich Incorporated committed to donate much of the land; the City of Monroe committed to coordinate the project, secure funding for environmental investigations, building demolition and site restoration; the Port of Monroe committed to acquire and hold the land; the MDEQ and EPA committed to find a way through the environmental liabilities maze; and Congressman John Dingell committed to finding a way to ensure long-term preservation and development of this valuable historic site.

Fortunately, all of the project-team members followed up their commitments with actions:

  • Environmental investigations identified the few real areas of concern on the site.
  • Environmental areas of concern were remediated.
  • Massive amounts of asbestos were abated.
  • The remaining buildings and industrial infrastructure were demolished and removed while preventing damage to areas of archaeological interest.
  • The site was restored to greenspace pending redevelopment as an historical interpretation center.
  • The $1,000,000 environmental insurance policy was secured.
  • A RCRA NFI letter is being issued.
  • The property was transferred to the Port of Monroe to hold for subsequent transfer to the National Park Service.

6. What type of innovative designs and energy-efficient technologies were implemented?

From battlefield to brownfield to battlefield again - a first in the nation! This is the first brownfield site that will be included in the National Park System. The real innovation in this brownfield project is the historic reclamation of a famous battlefield site and creation of an interpretive center which will be used for education, economic benefit, and creation of greenspace.

7. What recyclable materials were used to classify this as a 'green' development?

Sustainable development is defined as the confluence of the following three constituents: environmental, social, and economic. What could be a more sustainable, green development than reclaiming an industrial brownfield for historical preservation as well as education, economic benefit, and creation of greenspace. The abandoned plant buildings that were eyesores and presented threats to public health and safety are gone. In their place is a large, park-like, historic War of 1812 battlefield and interpretive center - a remarkable transformation over the past decade.

This project completes the city's long-term program to sustainably redevelop the multi-site "Paper Mill Row" brownfield zone at the northeastern gateway to the city. Two of the three former mill sites have been redeveloped into a sustainable, New Urbanism residential neighborhood and city-recreational complex. The battlefield site, when connected to the hike and bike trails of nearby Sterling State Park and City of Monroe, will form the nucleus of a significant tourist, educational, and recreational center in southeastern Michigan.

The future is now up to the National Park Service. Once title to the battlefield site is transferred to the NPS, plans for developing the site into an interpretive center and identifying funds to support those plans can begin. With little physical evidence of Frenchtown and the battlefield itself remaining, current cooperative efforts between the Monroe County Historical Society and the Monroe County Independent School District are being focused on virtual tours and virtual re-enactments of historical events on the site. If successful, this will be a new 21st century model for communicating history.

History Well Worth Preserving.
By the early 1780s, many French settlers had become dissatisfied with conditions in British-held Detroit, and decided to leave and establish a new town. In 1784, that journey ended at the Riviere aux Raisins (River Raisin), 45 miles to the south, where the settlers decided to build their new community. The settlement soon became the focal point of French life in the region. By 1810, it consisted of approximately twenty buildings located within a compound, enclosed by a puncheon fence (stockade), along the north bank of the river. It later became the flash point for American-British skirmishes during the initial stages of the War of 1812's Northwest Campaign.

Frenchtown occupied a critical position between the British-Canadian Army stationed in Detroit and the Kentucky Volunteer Militia led by William Henry Harrison encamped at Fort Meigs (near present-day Toledo). On January 19, 1813, the Kentucky Militia moved north and attacked British regulars in control of Frenchtown, driving them back to Fort Malden (now Amherstberg, Ontario). Four days later, on January 22, the British counterattacked, pushing those not captured or injured back south to Fort Meigs. More than 300 Americans died that day, making it the single most costly battle for the United States during the entire war. The next day, native allies of the British massacred another 60 injured Americans who were unable to march to Malden. The massacre of those wounded soldiers enraged and galvanized the fledgling western American settlements. Huge numbers of volunteers flocked to recruitment stations seeking revenge. With these additions, a new American Army of the Northwest forced the British from Ohio and back across the River Raisin during the summer of 1813. With Commodore Perry's September victory on Lake Erie, the British began a full retreat into Canada. On October 5, 1813, Harrison caught them at the Thames River near present-day London, Ontario. Led by the remaining Kentucky militiamen screaming, "Remember the Raisin," the Americans crushed the British-Indian force and ended the Northwest Campaign.

The events at Frenchtown and subsequent victory of the American Army in the Northwest Campaign secured the present-day boundaries of Michigan for the United States via the 1814 Treaty of Ghent.

After the Battle of the River Raisin, Frenchtown was abandoned. Three years later, in 1816, settlers began to return, settling further west along the River Raisin at the site of present-day Monroe. The battlefield site remained largely agricultural until the late 1800s. At that time, Israel Ilgenfritz used the property as part of a commercial nursery operation. The newly formed River Raisin Paper Company acquired the battlefield site and other property north of the River Raisin in 1910 for construction of a paper mill complex.

The mill operated until 1995 under the ownership of several companies, including the River Raisin Paper Company, Union Bag- Camp Paper Company, Union Camp Corporation, and Monroe Paper Company. Jefferson Smurfit Corporation was the last owner of the mill and referred to it as the "East Mill," a name it continues to bear. Jefferson Smurfit terminated operations at the mill in 1995 and sold the property to Homrich Incorporated in 1997.

Industrial operations were largely confined to approximately 40 acres of the mill property, approximately 20 acres of which lie within the historically significant area. Ten acres of the historic portion of the property were leased for agricultural use and was never developed. The remaining land was used for storage of recycled paper, which was raw material for the mill.

Soil and Materials Engineers, Inc.,
43980 Plymouth Oaks Blvd., Plymouth, Michigan

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