JEFFERSON — A Saturday event will provide residents the chance to “Rediscover Jefferson,” and even lifelong locals might have to do that considering the transformation the city’s west riverbank has undergone during the past decade.
The intersection of W. Milwaukee Street and Siefert Avenue once was crowded and strictly utilitarian. Now, three cooperative reinvestment projects undertaken by Steve Lewis, Ed Soleska and the City of Jefferson have shaped it into one of the city’s showpieces with the creation of a new riverside plaza.
That showpiece officially will be opened to the public at an event called “Rediscover Jefferson” slated for this Saturday and held in conjunction with the Jefferson Art Walk. Ribbon cuttings will be held for the Jefferson Area Business Center, Heron’s Landing and the city’s observation deck at 10 a.m., followed by an open house at each location until 4 p.m. A wine-and-cheese tasting will be offered at the restaurant, along with a car show and street market.
The redevelopment, which began in the 1990s and accelerated the past decade, has reoriented the entire neighborhood to think about playing a part in Jefferson’s future.
“This used to be kind of the forgotten part. All the buildings faced away from the river and it wasn’t really the focus,” said Lewis. “But there’s really been a revitalization here over the last decade or so and I think we have a lot more opportunities that are on the horizon.”
Lewis purchased the Borg Textile Corp. building at 222 Wisconsin Dr. in 1991 following the fabric manufacturer’s closing. He converted the building into a multi-unit “business incubator” for area manufacturers, but then had to shift focus fairly quickly as the economy began to change.
In the early 2000s, he began to attract more service-oriented clients, such as a sports medicine clinic and the Jefferson County Literacy Council. Today, the building houses 24 tenants from across the professional spectrum.
“The north end of the building ... is a softer use. This is going to be offices. The south end of the building will remain mostly manufacturing,” Lewis explained. “And then this north end is also going to house an assembly hall where we have weddings and anniversaries. And if the economy picks up and the demand is there, we have one more office pod that we’ll develop that will have a rotunda in it.”
Plans for the building also include 50 climate-controlled mini storage units, the first of which have just been rented, and three apartments facing the river. Perhaps most surprisingly to longtime Jefferson residents, the building will feature a new grand entrance off Siefert Avenue, taking advantage of new floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Milwaukee Street pedestrian bridge and the dam to create a multi-level atrium with a water feature.
Even though construction on the building isn’t finished, Lewis hopes features such as the grand entrance, landscaping, energy efficiency and artwork throughout the building will be enough to lure potential renters to the site.
“I don’t want to rent an assembly hall. My dream is that I would get a large company with maybe 25 professional people in here working and that’s our future dream,” he said. “We’ll have space for them and I think we’ll have an attractive enough building and enough of an environment with a restaurant and the river here that a company from Madison or Milwaukee that does business in both of those metropolitan areas could move their offices out of both of those and combine them right here in Jefferson. That’s my dream.”
That restaurant he talks about is Heron’s Landing, located just across the street at the base of the Milwaukee Street pedestrian bridge. Soleska purchased the 100-year-old tavern in 1994 and rechristened it as “Chicken’s Riverfront Bar.” They put quite a bit of work into refurbishing the structure at that point, and operated successfully for years before starting to think about doing more with the property.
“It must have been in 2007 when we started contemplating doing something with the area,” said Soleska. “Gary Myers was the mayor at the time and he invited a lot of local merchants (to talk about) what people could do to help the city. They were developing a master plan.”
Soleska was just beginning to develop plans for the property when the economy crashed and the Rock River flooded, pushing the business owners’ development plans into high gear overnight.
“It was a two-edged sword, the flooding. Even before the flood, we were looking to do some renovation down here, both of us. And the flood came up and it was historic,” said Lewis.
He remembers traveling while the waters rose and reassuring himself, saying ‘It’s been up to 13 feet before, a little water will get into this one room, but don’t worry about it. It’s never been higher than that in the whole history of the building, which is about 100 years.”
As it turns out, the river rose so high Lewis had to remove all of the tenants from his lower level.
When the waters finally receded, both properties were eligible for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the projects were deemed “shovel-ready.” Facing the choice to either mitigate the problems caused by the flood or raze the properties, Soleska and Lewis responded heartily.
“We raised the first floor up 32 inches, which hopefully is two feet above that historic flood,” said Lewis, noting that the improvements brought half of his building completely out of the flood zone. “Unless we have a Biblical-type flood, I think we will be good.”
The Heron’s Landing owner also had to retool its efforts significantly.
“We no longer have a basement. We filled it in completely and just completely rebuilt that building, rehabbed it,” said Soleska, who credits most of the hard work to his son, Mike. “We put the patio on, we restored the windows, we did the roof, and that building is stronger than it ever was.”
Through all of it, Soleska made an effort to keep as much of the building’s original charm as possible.
“It was built in 1898, and that building, if it’s taken care of properly, can be there probably for another couple-hundred years,” he said. “We’ve got lights from 1883 that light our hallway when you come in. Mike envisioned a way of using the old bar and the back bar, so it’s moved from one room to the other room, and he replicated a lot of the original looks. We’ve got the old doors on the inside, our baseboard and window sills are made with old lumber and we rebuilt the bearing walls with old lumber, which is actually stronger lumber than new-growth lumber.”
The flood, while devastating, has jump-started many of the positive changes that had been planned for the area.
“We tore down four older, blighted buildings and put a lot of effort into the remaining buildings,” said Lewis. “The city developed the riverwalk, and put an observation deck out. So what they envisioned in 2000, 14 years later, has really come to be a reality.”
Janet Werner, executive director of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, noted how long these projects have been in the making and the positive change the developments have on the community.
“I think, as far back as I can remember, there’s always been talk in the planning sessions about how to improve the river frontage and the back side of the buildings downtown. Because you come over the Racine Street bridge and sometimes the vision that you saw wasn’t so great,” she said.
Efforts to redevelop the area stretch back through former city Mayors Myers and Arnold Brawders, who helped usher in plans for the Milwaukee Street pedestrian bridge. She said the current improvements are a huge step forward, and though she would like to see still more done, Werner knows they will encourage further development along the riverfront.
“When you sit on that planning committee, like I have over the past several years, there’s always that little question mark: Are you going to live long enough to see it happen? And when you actually do live long enough to see it happen, it’s the most rewarding thing I think you can get out of being on those committees,” she said. “Very humbling, too.”
Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann noted that the improvements, when viewed as a single redevelopment project, are just one in a string of openings all over the city, pointing to what he called the city’s “renaissance.”
The city’s south side recently premiered a new Kwik Trip location, and construction will wrap up soon on a new multi-tenant commercial building, anchored by DJC Accounting at the site of the former Andy’s Family Restaurant. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies on two memory care facilities east of town at the Sanctuary Ridge site and a new development by Jim Kuehn have enhanced city officials’ excitement about Jefferson’s outlook.
“They’re all kind of tying together. People, from the feedback that we’re getting, like what’s going on and they’re pretty proud that Jefferson is a place that’s seen as being progressive,” said Oppermann. “It’s important that we recognize that this is an important milestone, but it’s not the final goal. It’s one step along the way and there are other improvements planned down here to improve access to the river.”
Construction on the city’s observation deck overlooking the dam was completed this year, with landscaping and lighting putting the cap on the final product. As the collaborative effort draws to a close, the city’s showpiece is hoped to draw attention from outside the region.
“The economy is definitely coming back. I don’t know about Ed, but I definitely got worried about it. The recession was harder than I thought it was going to be,” said Lewis. “But our sales are up; we’re getting more inquiries about tenants.”
Of the companies currently occupying the building, some of them have brought their business to the city from outside, bringing new jobs with them. An engineering firm located there can work anywhere and chose Jefferson. A ventilation manufacturer moved from northern Illinois to Jefferson, while another company that makes liftchairs was drawn from Germantown by a city-provided incentive.
“Those opportunities, now that we have the building, will be here. If we didn’t have a good restaurant, if we didn’t have good infrastructure, people wouldn’t even look at Jefferson. They wouldn’t even consider us because we didn’t have the infrastructure and space. But now we do, and I think it’s going to happen,” said Lewis, expressing his belief that the city can draw jobs with the sort of developments taking place on the west bank.
“Jefferson, I think, is at the leading edge of it with everything we’re doing.”