Ghost Town?

A brief thought for a busy Friday morning:

Every once in awhile, mainly on social media, I’ll see someone state that “downtown Fort Atkinson is a ghost town”, implying there are lots of empty buildings, etc. I even heard a comment about that this past Monday night, at the local candidate forum I participated in.

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(Image of downtown Fort Atkinson, via City-Data.com)

Just to get an exact idea of the reality of the situation, my wife and I counted empty storefronts on Main Street yesterday, between 3rd St and Sherman Ave. We counted a total of four empty storefronts on Main Street (one of which is the building where Bent Kettle has their tap room below street level). Yes, four total.

While there’s always some room for improvement, I’d say this makes the case that we’re doing pretty well overall in our downtown area. Any city is going to have some turnover in its downtown district. We’re definitely not immune from this.

If you’re a Fort Atkinson resident or a visitor, what do you think? Share your thoughts below!

Our Economic Development Commission

Fort Atkinson recently passed an ordinance creating an Economic Development Commission (EDC). I was part of the initial process, working with our city manager and others. I had gotten input from the previous Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium director, who suggested our city should examine the idea. We looked at several different models, and decided this route made the most sense for our city right now.

My desire to start an official Economic Development Commission in our city came from wanting to ensure that we continued working on the tougher economic issues, while leaving a broad scope in place for individuals on the commission to bring forth their own ideas and goals. I also wanted the group to have official authority and accountability under our city government.

Earlier this week, our city council approved the following individuals to serve on the EDC:

  • Bill Camplin, owner of the Cafe Carpe, 1 year term.
  • John Mielke, Fort Atkinson Industrial Development Corp. President, 1 year term.
  • Scott Housley, W&A Distribution Services Inc. CEO, 2 year term.
  • Mike Wallace, Fort Healthcare President, 2 year term.
  • Mark McGlynn, IPEC President, 3 year term.
  • Margaret Bare, Fort Tax Service Inc. owner, 3 year term.

I’m proud to say I was selected to serve as the city council representative on the commission. The city manager and Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce director will serve as ex-officio (non-voting) members.

I believe the people selected represent a very experienced and well rounded group. Hopefully many different viewpoints will be brought to the table.

Our city seems to have turned a corner of late, in terms of new and positive business growth. Previously empty buildings are starting to fill up again, and a few new businesses have recently come in (such as Aster Assisted Living, pictured below). However, we still have some major issues to deal with. My hope is that the new EDC will help with different issues, both big and small, in Fort Atkinson.

Click this link for the full story our local paper did on the EDC: Daily Jefferson County Union story (Section on the Economic Development Commission is about halfway through the story).

Thoughts? Comments? Reply below!

aster

Dark Store Legislation

Today I’m dusting off my keyboard to share a letter I wrote yesterday to my state representative and state senator. I wrote them to share my concerns about “dark store” tax loophole tactics used by some large “big box” chains here in Wisconsin to get their property taxes reduced, sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The League of Municipalities has a good page about how dark store tactics are employed by some businesses. You can read more here. Essentially, these businesses argue that their property tax valuations should be compared to similar sized properties which could be closed and no longer operating. If such argument is successful, it means a further property tax burden is shifted to other property owners in the community (including homeowners).

dark-store-property

Yes, that shiny new store in your town could see a tax valuation similar to a property like this!

There is currently a bill circulating in the state capital which would preempt further dark store tactics. Here is the letter I wrote below (name removed, as I don’t want to turn this into a political commentary on our local legislators):

Rep. _________,

I am writing you to today to express support for legislation put forth by Rep. Brooks and Sen. Roth regarding closing the “dark store” tax argument that some companies are using to successfully argue for property tax reductions throughout Wisconsin.

I’m sure if you polled your constituents, overwhelmingly, most would feel they already pay enough in property taxes. Without passing this dark store legislation, homeowners could see an unfair shift of more property taxes going towards them. I’m sure that is something you and your colleagues would not want to happen.

Homeowners already pay their fair share of property taxes. Businesses need to pay their fair share, too. The difference is that the average homeowner can’t pay for high priced lawyers to argue in their favor. Please consider supporting this legislation, as it’s about simple fiscal fairness.

Sincerely,
Mason T. Becker
Fort Atkinson City Councilman

Do you agree with the sentiments I expressed? Feel otherwise? Please comment below!

On building walls

It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve written a post for this site, and it’s high time I get back to it.

I’m going to take a break from writing about directly local issues, to discuss something with national and global impact: building walls.

The topic of building a wall along the US southern border is once again top of mind in our media, with President Trump proclaiming that construction will begin within “months.” I’m going to set aside the huge logistical and financial problems presented by such an idea (numerous as they are), and talk about the historic implications of “build the wall.”

When I think of walls set up to keep people out (or keep them in, if looked at from the other direction), I’m reminded that we don’t need to go too far back in history to find an example of such a construct. We can look to the Cold War Era, and the Berlin Wall.

My wife and I had the chance to travel to Europe and visit Berlin back in 2005. Already by then, only a small portion of the Berlin Wall still remained. The main remaining section was a piece of concrete, less than a city block wide, and was covered in varied graffiti art. A weathered and broken testament to a failed ideology.

Seeing the Berlin Wall in person at that point, didn’t have much impact. However, the following display did, at least for me.

Near Checkpoint Charlie, there had been a memorial setup. This memorial didn’t honor any soldiers who had manned the Berlin Wall, or any government officials who had overseen either its construction or dismantling. Instead, it honored the victims of the wall.

berlin_wall_victims_monument

Approximately 1,000 plain black crosses, set up evenly, with pictures of every person who died trying to cross this wall. I found it to be powerful and moving. The display is no longer there, in fact it came down later in the same year we visited, but you can read more about it here.

I think we need to all ask ourselves, what kind of America do we want to live in? Do we want to still be “the shining city on the hill”, which so many writers, politicians, and presidents have referred to over the decades? Or do we want to become a country that expends hundreds of billions of dollars throwing up barriers that keep those seeking refuge and opportunity out? Do we want our own monument to division and death? Or are there better ways of keeping our country safe, while still remaining a thriving melting pot that the rest of the world looks to?

All Americans, sooner than later, must decide how we want to move forward, and how we want to present ourselves as a country to our neighboring nations.

Looking at Fort Atkinson city council race

While many Americans may still feel burned out from the November presidential election, this is a critical time in our democratic process. It may be surprising, but spring elections are right around the corner! Now that the deadline has passed for turning in nomination signatures, the upcoming Spring 2017 election in Fort Atkinson is shaping up to be an interesting one.

All three incumbent city council members are running again: Paul Kotz, Davin Lescohier, and myself. There are also two newcomers to the race: Tangee Dunn and Don Bladorn.

I get asked often about details of how a city council election works. The exact process can vary by city, but here is a breakdown of how things work in Fort Atkinson:

  • All five city council seats are “at large” seats. This means that each council member represents the entire city. This contrasts with cities that may have council or aldermanic “districts” which usually consist of a large neighborhood area.
  • All terms are two year terms. Three council seats are elected one year, two council seats are elected the next year.
  • We do not have term limits.
  • To get on the ballot, a candidate needs to only be a current resident of Fort Atkinson, 18 or older. They need to secure a minimum of 100 signatures from qualified electors (ie. legal residents of the City of Fort Atkinson), along with filing some other basic paperwork with the city clerk.
  • There can be a primary held in February to winnow down the amount of candidates on a given April ballot. This typically only happens if there are more than two candidates for each seat on the ballot. However, it is not mandatory to hold a primary in such an event. It is at the discretion of the the city clerk.

I am glad we will again have a contested election this year, for the third year in a row. I believe it’s important for voters to have a choice. This also encourages active participation from local residents. This can be in the form of anything from researching the candidates, to reading newspaper articles, or attending a candidate forum. The Fort Atkinson candidate forum is typically held in late March, and includes city council, school board, and judicial candidates.

If you wish to check your voting status ahead of the election, you can do so by clicking this logo:

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Hopefully the information here is helpful. Wherever you live, I would encourage you to research local candidates, and remember to vote on April 4, 2017. Local elected officials have a big impact on your community and your quality of life.

Thoughts about Fort Atkinson in 2017

I recently read an interesting thread on a local Facebook page, asking what is going on with a property on the north side of Fort Atkinson. Specifically, the person who started the thread asked about the former Kmart plaza property.

At one time, said property housed not only Kmart, but also a Radio Shack, and years ago was also home to a Piggly Wiggly. Those businesses are now long gone, and it’s not a stretch to say such business models will probably not be making a comeback in that section of our city.

We would definitely all love to see this section of the city rejuvenated. Since the closing of Kmart in 2014, this area has more or less languished. It has been a topic of conversation between myself, our city manager, and other key individuals.

k-mart-plaza-2017
The Kmart strip mall in Fort Atkinson, as it sits today. 

People want to see something happen in that area. This is a good thing! Sears owns the property, and seems to have gotten more aggressive with it recently, by listing it for sale with an actual listing price ($1.2 million, if you are interested).

I am skeptical that traditional retail will return to this area. Aside from a local family restaurant (I give kudos to them for still being viable in this area!), there are no tenants currently in the Kmart building. Traffic counts are no doubt low…much lower than before the Highway 26 bypass was put in around Fort Atkinson.

Fort Atkinson’s city council recently passed an ordinance creating an Economic Development Commission. This is just a first step…economic rejuvenation of the Kmart area, and other sections of the city, will not occur overnight. This is just a start to what will be a long process.

While it can be easy to focus on the negatives, we have many positive things happening in Fort Atkinson. As I pointed out to someone in the Facebook discussion mentioned earlier, the former Napa building is being remodeled, and will soon be home to a local insurance agency. The former Associated Bank building was recently purchased, and is now home to two successful local businesses. The former 88 Underground (Velvet Lips) location will soon be home to a taproom (check out Bent Kettle’s brews, if you haven’t already!). The north building of the Verlo property (the old creamery building downtown) will soon have two tenants.

Good things are happening…but it’s up to all of us to see that our local economy continues to flourish. Please, shop local whenever you can. Let’s work together to keep Fort Atkinson strong, viable, and growing in 2017!

Hello!

This is my new website, where I plan to place my thoughts on many different topics, including my service as a city councilman. I’m kind of new to the whole WordPress thing, so please bear with me as the site is built. I hope you will enjoy visiting!

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