Our 75 Acres of Opportunity

As many residents are now aware of, this past week during a special meeting, the Fort Atkinson City Council authorized the purchase of approximately 75 acres of property, located on both sides of Banker Road, just outside the current city boundary. The measure passed on a unanimous vote.

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Many questions quickly sprang up, regarding the city’s reasoning for doing this. This is to be expected. I’m hoping to shed some light on the reasoning and thinking that lead to this decision to make such a significant land acquisition.

The parcels in question had been purchased in 2017 by Copperhead Property Management. The owners did intend to develop the area as residential, but did not possess a great deal of background as developers. Their primary business background relates to construction contracting. After they initially set about having engineering plans done, the owners and the city manager discussed the possibility of a land sale.

The idea of purchasing this property was attractive to the city government, for a number of reasons. One of the overriding reasons was the desire to acquire land that could be developed as both owner-occupied and rental residential.

For me personally, lack of rentals in Fort Atkinson has become somewhat of a personal issue. I have talked to many residents in the city, frustrated by the lack of available rentals (for an affordable price). Lack of rentals can make it difficult for families and individuals to live here. It can also make it hard for employers to attract and retain employees. Here are some examples of comments I have heard first hand from local residents:

  • “My wife and I wanted to stay in Fort Atkinson, but we weren’t ready to buy a house. We couldn’t find any acceptable rentals in our price range, so we are moving to Dane County.”
  • “If I can’t find a rental soon, my kids and I will be living in our car.”
  • “A bus pulls up to the hotel across the street every day, to pick up kids for school.”
  • “We have trouble attracting job candidates here, because they can’t find a home they can afford in our city.”

As far as new home construction, it is true there are some lots available in the city. However, there are many of these lots that set on wet areas, which require remediation first, before they can be approved for new home construction.

My hope is that the Banker Road area can meet the needs of many different people, from people looking for affordable rentals, to families looking for a new home, to seniors looking to downsize from their current residences.

Many other neighboring communities, including Milton and Jefferson, have ongoing residential development projects occurring at this time. I believe Fort Atkinson has to stay competitive in this arena. We can’t just talk about our city being a great place to live, we have to make that possibility a reality for a greater number of people.

I would like to also address a related issue that I have seen raised on social media. One obvious question is the issue of the Klement Business Park, and lack of recent new development there.

Yes, it is true that we need to work on attracting additional businesses to this property. We recently changed listing agents for the Klement Business Park, and will now be working with Mike Herl, who successfully oversaw the revitalization of the Cremery/Verlo Building in downtown Fort Atkinson. I am personally optimistic that Mr. Herl will be able to leverage some of his local and regional connections to bring new prospects to the park.

As the Klement Business Park TIF district stands today, it cannot be used for residential building, until the expiration of the TIF district. Further, as our city manager, Matt Trebatoski, often points out, it is important to retain some available land in the city for future growth of our existing businesses. Having a local business that wants to expand, but can’t due to lack of available land, is not an enviable position to be in.

I would be remiss if I also didn’t address the points brought up regarding the K-Mart area. Several months ago, the city presented a plan to redevelop that area as a mixed residential area. This proposal received largely positive feedback from the community. While the property was still owned by Sears, the City of Fort Atkinson did in fact try to acquire this property. Unfortunately, Sears was very slow to respond to our offers. While this was going on, U-Haul was able to negotiate a purchase of the property, as part of a large package of multiple Sears owned properties. They intend to develop the former K-Mart property as a commercial location for their business, including truck rentals and indoor storage.

I believe we are taking a residential development concept the public saw as a positive one, but simply moving it from one area of the city to another.

Finally, a key reason for voting to acquire the Banker Road land, was the fact that this property was going to be developed, one way or another. As a local elected official, I must look out for the interests of our residents. Our city government can now have a guiding hand in the development of this property, which will contribute to our property tax base in the future.

There will be challenges ahead, but I firmly believe that our city has new opportunities with this property acquisition, which we didn’t have before. As always, I welcome input from all of you on this topic.

 

On the Eve of Independence Day

This will be a short post tonight, but contains some thoughts I feel the need to express:

On the eve of July 4th, as we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, remember that it’s very easy to say, “They should do this,” or “They should do that.” Human nature tends to make us amplify the negatives, and forget about the positives. The prevalence of social media makes this even easier to do these days, to a wider audience.

If you take pride in your community, consider volunteering. We have many civic organizations and public committees doing great things in our area.

If you have a legitimate problem with something you do not feel is being addressed, consider writing an email, or attending a local city council meeting. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Change starts at the local level. Get involved!

If you think your city is lacking a certain type of business, think about productive ways this could be addressed…maybe even open such a business yourself as a small startup, even if it’s just a part time “side gig”.

We have a great city, a great state, and a great country, but positive change only happens when people are willing to stand up, speak out, and roll up their sleeves to get the work done.

Our forefathers gave us a gift. Let’s not let it go to waste by tearing others down. Let’s work together to make our local communities the best they can be. Sometimes that means doing more than complaining on social media.

I hope all of you have a wonderful 4th of July!

News from last night

Well, after two years, at last night’s Fort Atkinson City Council meeting, I passed the president’s gavel back to the very capable hands of Councilman Paul Kotz. I was very honored to have been given the privilege of serving as council president for two consecutive years.
 
We also wished farewell to Councilman Davin Lescohier, who served as a steady hand on the council for the past 10 years. It is quite an accomplishment to serve in any elected office that long, and one worthy of all our thanks.
 
We got some very important things done over these past two years, particularly completing our city’s 10 year Comprehensive Plan Update, planning for an overhaul of our fire station, coming up with a concept plan for the K-Mart area, completely a rental housing study, and much more.
 
We weren’t able to make everything happen that we wanted (more business in the Klement Business Park remains a big goal, to name one), but we’ll keep trying.
 
The rest of the council decided to elect me as president pro tem for this coming year. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with our very capable city council, including our newest member, Chris Scherer, as we focus on issues like housing, economic development, and much more. Thank you for entrusting the five of us to guide the city. I will personally keep listening to all of you, and I appreciate your support.
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Don’t wait for a Target

Today’s blog post isn’t one I’m excited to write, but it’s one that is necessary.

We have a very well intentioned individual in our community, who has been circulating a petition, asking for Target to build a store in Fort Atkinson. I am thrilled that someone was willing to take the initiative to do this, and I share in their spirit of wanting to see fresh retail economic development in Fort Atkinson, especially with the impending closure of our local Shopko location.

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However, I do not want to give residents a false hope that Target will be coming to Fort Atkinson. Here is a portion of an email our city manager received late last week, from Target’s Regional Real Estate Director.

Target’s new store growth strategy is focused on opening small format stores in the Top 10-12 metropolitan markets, and adding small format stores to key campuses and universities across the country.  While we still have a full-format new store program, these stores are only being opened in key strategic markets.

We continually monitor markets to understand changes in employment and population, new housing growth, shifts in retail nodes and retail competition, etc. … Unfortunately, many trade areas just don’t have large enough populations to support a store.

Kmart and Shopko store strategies reached into smaller and more rural areas – a strategy that Target never pursued.  While Fort Atkinson is a vibrant community, it’s population at 17,000 won’t support a store.

[Editor note: The 17,000 population figure includes townships surrounding Fort Atkinson.]

So there you have it. The reality is that Target won’t be coming to Fort Atkinson, at least for the foreseeable future.

I remain firmly convinced that future development in our city will be largely driven by individuals who already live and work in our community. While our city manager and I have been contacting various companies (we have reached out to approximately 25 different retailers), we have not received very promising responses thus far. This doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying.

I remain firmly committed to finding retail partners for our community. Fort Atkinson residents deserve to have varied shopping options. Let’s keep working together to come up with local solutions to this problem.

 

Thoughts on Shopko

Monday was a rather sad day here in Fort Atkinson, as we received word that Shopko will be closing all of their remaining stores, within the next few months. The retailer had been trying to find a buyer to take on their remaining stores, but has failed to do so.

This leaves a major retail hole in our city. After having lost K-Mart in 2014, Shopko was the remaining major retailer. Like many places in Wisconsin, Shopko became our sole location to purchase basic goods like shoes, new clothing, household staples, and other items locally.

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Shopko on Janesville Avenue in Fort Atkinson, closing in early June.

Fort Atkinson has a strong culture of wanting to keep shopping local. This is evidenced by still having a decent amount of locally owned shops in our downtown, and the continually thriving Farmer’s Market that our city hosts on a weekly basis every year. We also have a very active Chamber of Commerce that promotes the “shop local” ethic.

As many residents know, Walmart approached Fort Atkinson years ago, desiring to open a new store here. A group of local residents initiated a campaign to resist Walmart, and the retailer eventually opened a store in Jefferson instead. Walmart also currently operates a location in nearby Whitewater.

While it might be tempting to say, “We should have let Walmart come in!”, I would point out that not every Walmart store is successful. At the time, our city still had K-Mart and Shopko, and there’s no guarantee Walmart would have remained open indefinitely in our community. Alternatively, maybe Walmart would have thrived, but there’s a good chance other smaller shops in our downtown would have closed.

Shopko’s demise is not the fault of shoppers in Fort Atkinson, or any other community. This recent article from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel explains a major problem with the company:

Shopko’s creditors want to force the company’s owners to return $117 million in dividends paid over the last four years.

In a motion filed in bankruptcy court on Tuesday, a committee representing some of the company’s largest landlords and suppliers said $67 million in special dividends and fees constituted a “fraudulent conveyance” while another $50 million in dividends were “illegal.”

The creditors committee is seeking a Nebraska bankruptcy judge’s permission to attempt to recover those claims, which could add millions of dollars to Shopko’s balance sheets at a time when unsecured creditors, those who do not have a claim to collateral, face a real chance of not receiving anything of what the Ashwaubenon-based retailer owes them for inventory, services and leases.

In February, Shopko’s two independent directors identified $179.5 million in dividends paid to Shopko’s private equity owners — Sun Capital, Waverly Securities, KLA Shopko LLC and H.I.G. Sun Partners Inc. — between 2007 and 2015. The company borrowed money to pay the dividends, according to court documents.

So we have an example of a company that paid investors huge sums of money, through borrowing, while Shopko continued to struggle. Fort Atkinson now, like other communities, is faced with the prospect of a vacant retail site, and a loss of jobs.

So, what should we do about it? I will share that, like many citizens, I still desire to have a major retailer in Fort Atkinson. We deserve to have a store in our community where we can go for basic necessities. Personally, I purchased my contacts and other optical needs there, and would shop there regularly. My wife and I would also do a decent amount of our Christmas shopping there. I will miss having them in Fort Atkinson.

I can tell you that our city manager and I have already started contacting other retailers, to inquire about their prospects for future stores in our city. I do not want to get any hopes up, though, that we will be able to find a new retailer in the near future. Nationally, most major retailers are not expanding, and many of the existing ones limit their locations to larger metro areas (ie. cities the size of Madison, Milwaukee, Janesville, etc).

I will also share that Costco and Meijer have already turned us down, as far as any plans for a Fort Atkinson location. This is mainly due to their population requirements for a given market.

My personal view is that the majority of future retail store growth in our community won’t be initiated by outside interests. I would suggest that it will be initiated by residents living and working in our own city. Maybe we won’t have a major “big box” store again, but maybe we could have several smaller retail stores, possibly owned by local entrepreneurs.

Fort Atkinson is a city that often doesn’t receive a lot of assistance from the outside. It often feels like we don’t have anyone advocating for us in Madison, and the federal government certainly isn’t stepping in to help us. Most of our biggest successes have been accomplished by ourselves, by people right here in our community.

Our future is in our hands. We need to start having conversations now, about what we want our city to look like in the future. Our recently approved Comprehensive Plan update (just passed this Tuesday), calls for retaining and growing retail and locally owned businesses. Let’s work together to make sure that happens.

If you have thoughts, please share them here, or email me at mbecker@fortatkinsonwi.net.

The Housing Market Study

The lack of available and affordable rental housing is acknowledged as a statewide, and even a nationwide problem, by most outlets in 2019. The problem is present even here in the City of Fort Atkinson.

Baker Tilly Virchow Krause (usually best known as “Baker Tilly”), recently completed a Housing Market Assessment Study, which focused on the availability of affordable rental units targeted to seniors and low-to-mid income residents. The study was commissioned by the city, and sponsored by the Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Atkinson Community Foundation.

The study found that there is an immediate need for approximately 200 more rental units in the City of Fort Atkinson. Current vacancy rates for this time of housing in the city’s Primary Market Area were identified as averaging less than one percent. The need was split as follows:

Section 42 Family: 65 units

Section 42 Senior: 40 units

Market Rate: 95 units

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Example of a sign seen much too infrequently in Fort Atkinson lately.

The study identified three prime areas for construction of multifamily rental housing. The key areas were the K-Mart plaza area, an area near the Fort Atkinson High School, and a site to the north of Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital.

Now that we know this is a concrete need in our community, what can we do about it?

In order to make the numbers work financially for construction of this type of housing, developers usually need a mixture of incentives. This could be a combination of tax credits from WHEDA, in conjunction with TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funds, or other local assistance. Larger communities, such as the City of Madison, can sometimes offer subsidies from a housing fund.

Personally, I believe this is a challenge that our city can meet. We can’t wait around for outside assistance to do the work for us. We need to identify individuals in the community we can work with, in order to get some of this necessary development going. While the city currently does not have a housing fund, we can possibly create assistance through TIF in certain areas. Baker Tilly also discussed the use of Requests for Proposal, which could possibly be used to attract developers to these types of projects.

If we want the city to continue growing, if we want to attract and retain younger workers and families, and if we want seniors to be able to remain living in our community, we need to address this glaring problem.

Please share any thoughts you may have with me on this important subject. You can leave a comment here, or email me at mbecker@fortatkinsonwi.net.

 

 

 

The Comprehensive Plan Update

Every ten years, cities and villages in Wisconsin are required to update their Comprehensive Plan. A Comprehensive Plan is an overriding legal document that sets out a “road map” for a municipality. The city council and city staff are obligated to take the Comprehensive Plan into consideration when weighing decisions.

Why is this important? The Comprehensive Plan covers topics like zoning, and what residents want the city to look like in the future. It can also cover topics of emphasis, like strengthening a downtown area, or targeting specific areas for redevelopment.

Fort Atkinson recently held a community open house to gather feedback on our upcoming Comprehensive Plan update. Some of the feedback gathered from residents included the following:

  • Focusing on redevelopment of the former K-Mart property, including support for the already proposed site redevelopment map.
  • Keeping the urban part of the city separate from rural areas.
  • A desire for downtown beautification efforts, including adding greenery and other decorative amenities.
  • Expansion of our bike trail network, including possible acquisition of further disused railroad lines.
  • A need for more small housing options.
  • The possibility of creating a downtown “town square”.

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Local residents at the Comprehensive Plan Open House, reviewing plans and giving feedback.

This is just a small sampling of some of the feedback that was gathered at the open house, which over 50 people attended.

Fort Atkinson is fortunate to have so many engaged residents, who are willing and eager to give their input on what they want their community to look like in the future.

Do you have further ideas for what Fort Atkinson should look like as we continue further into the 21st Century? Anything we are completely missing right now? Feel free to reach out to me at mbecker@fortatkinsonwi.net, or reply in the comments section here.

Parking in the Business Park

There has been a decent amount of discussion and questions about a recent proposed ordinance for the City of Fort Atkinson, and I hope this post will help answer some of the recurring questions.
Regarding the proposed ordinance change which would prohibit on-street parking on Mielke Drive in the Klement Business Park:
 
The city decided to review parking in the business park, after one of the businesses in the park came forward and complained about the number of trucks parking there, the fact that some were staying well beyond the 48 hours allowed by ordinance, and also that some of the trailers were serving as de facto billboards for competing businesses not even located in Fort Atkinson.
 
The covenants of the Klement Business Park specifically prohibit on street parking. The allowance of truck parking on Mielke Drive was done as a measure to help out a small number of local truckers, and was never intended to be indefinitely permanent.
 
The city is doing what it can to attract further business in the park. It has always been intended that more business would come into the Klement Business Park (thus benefiting everyone in the city). Part of this process requires maximizing curb appeal of the park. The city has received negative comments from prospective businesses about the current allowance of on-street parking.
 
The proposed ordinance was read for the first time last night, October 2nd. There will likely be two more readings of the ordinance, at the next two council meetings, before it is enacted. The ordinance, if passed as written, would go into effect January 1, 2019.
 
Yerges Storage has come forward, notifying the city that they have space for trucks to park, including electrical hookup, for a fee. Residents currently using Mielke Drive for parking are encouraged to contact Yerges, or begin looking at alternative arrangements.
Further info on the business park can be found here: http://forwardfort.com/robert-l-klement-business-park/
Further questions? Feel free to email me at any time, at mbecker@fortatkinsonwi.net.

Some Questions On Housing

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a conference session right here in Fort Atkinson, held by representatives from WHEDA and WEDC, as well as the JCEDC (Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium). Attendees included people from nearby communities, prospective developers, and others. Discussions included programs the agencies have to assist home buyers and local companies, housing development opportunities, and more.

This was all very timely for me, as I have been thinking about housing a lot lately. It has recently come to by attention that some of our housing deficiencies in Fort Atkinson may be larger than I had known.

Anecdotally, I have heard of people staying in hotels because they cannot find rentals. I am also hearing more and more about people who cannot rent because of bad credit history, or because they are starting out in the job market and cannot afford to pay a market rent.

I have some strong feelings about what I think our housing needs are. But I’d like to hear from the Fort Atkinson community. What do you think we are lacking? What demographics and age groups are being underserved? Do we have enough housing stock? Do we have enough rental stock?

Please comment below. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your thoughts publicly, please email me at mbecker@fortatkinsonwi.net.

I want to make sure we have a community that serves the housing needs of everyone, whether young or old, lower income or wealthy, homeowner or renter.

 

About that pesky local road maintenance issue…

Sometimes I feel compelled to write things to various members of our state legislature. Sometimes I get responses, often times I do not.

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Photo of what we’re trying to avoid having in Fort Atkinson (picture from the Transportation Development Association website).

The Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee had a hearing yesterday. I was not able to attend that meeting due to work, but I emailed the following letter to all the members of that committee. Here it is, for your reading enjoyment/amusement/criticism/whatever. Feel free to comment below!

Click here to read my letter: AB 361 opinion

As always, thanks for reading my blog…I hope all of you are enjoying a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday season!