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.