JEFFERSON — The City of Jefferson’s Economic Recovery Plan, created in response to the mid-2016 closure of the Tyson Foods’ plant, was presented to residents during a public meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Eight people attended the 3 p.m. session, which included a presentation of the recovery plan and open discussion to allow for feedback, held at Jefferson City Hall.
In November 2015, when Tyson Foods Inc. announced it would be closing the 140-year-old Jefferson plant, city officials immediately began looking at options to address the severe economic impact they knew it would have.
Among the actions taken by city officials was applying for an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant to undertake an Economic Recovery Plan. A $130,000 grant was awarded on a dollar-to-dollar match to retain a consultant to conduct the study.
Vanderwalle & Associates Inc. of Madison, the city’s longtime planning consultant, was selected and has been working on the study since January.
“The purpose of this work is to develop an economic strategy following the Tyson plant closure,” Jolena Presti, principal of Vanderwalle & Associates Inc.’s Milwaukee office, said. “But, we’re really using it as an opportunity also to build bigger strategies, bigger ideas for economic development in the city, not just focused on that one site and that plant, but really how to take advantage of this great grant that you have and think about future economic development for the city.”
The overall project objective is to “position Jefferson for economic recovery and growth by identifying asset-based opportunity areas and aligning initiatives to sites with greatest potential for redevelopment and economic growth.”
In December 2015, Jefferson County was declared “distressed” due to the imminent closure of Tyson’s meat-processing plant. It closed July 9, 2016, leaving more than 400 employees jobless.
Tyson’s closure was one of the area’s many business shutdowns during 2015-16. Other area companies that experienced layoffs included McCain Foods in Fort Atkinson, Multicolor Eaton in Watertown and Littelfuse in Lake Mills. Altogether, roughly 1,000 jobs were lost.
Components of the proposed Economic Recovery Plan include various analyses such as existing conditions, market analysis, floodplain activity assessment, and an asset and opportunity analysis.
“We start with looking at the regional opportunities for a community,” Presti explained. “What that means is we’re looking at where you’re located within the region, what are the major assets that impact you, positive aspects and what are some challenges.”
The plan lists four regional assets: natural and cultural assets; regional connections; strong economic identity; and regional education and workforce networks.
“Zooming in, we get right down to the city level,” Presti said. “Building off where you’re located in the region, we look at key assets or areas to expand upon for the City of Jefferson, what opportunities does the city have?”
• Interchange market areas.
“What we mean by identifying those as an opportunity is that those are gateway areas of your community,” Presti explained. “What we’re talking about there is looking at opportunities to present the community to people coming in from Madison, from I-94, from Janesville.
“What do you want people to see?” she questioned. “That’s something you could plan for and also have design standards and different thoughts as you are looking at different proposals for development or thinking about what to do for land uses in those areas.”
• Downtown riverfront gateway.
The U.S. Highway 18 entryway to downtown and the riverfront also is a major area where people come into the community, Presti explained. In addition, it is a connector to Jefferson County Fair Park.
“Thinking of that as another corridor, things you would think about are the type of land uses, the type of design,” she said. “I know you have some nice streetscaping and lighting along that way. That’s another way to think about people coming into your downtown and how you want that to feel.”
• Connections to natural assets.
The city is fortunate to have both the Rock and Crawfish rivers, so it’s important to make sure people have access to those waterways and to activities they can partake of on the rivers, she noted.
Also important are bicycle and pedestrian connections, a number of strategies for which are outlined in the city’s downtown plan, Presti said.
“Then your parks,” she added. “You have a great parks system. Continue to maintain that and think about what other opportunities — in particular on the waterfronts areas — you could have additional park space.”
• Main Street commercial corridor/downtown.
“The downtown areas are the hearts of communities and you’re fortunate to have a strong historic core,” Presti said. “In this, there’s opportunities to think about how to use redevelopment sites downtown that are already vacant or ready for something to happen to make that a catalyst for additional growth and economic development in the city.”
• Business park growth areas.
The city is fortunate to have sites where it can grow and expand, Presti noted. New business parks allow for new businesses and let current ones that have run out of room in their current location expand in a bigger site.
• Commercial infill areas.
“That’s an area where you have existing long-term commercial businesses, usually retail,” Presti explained. “But, we want to make sure we’re continuing to infill with new uses so those areas don’t become blighted or stagnant over time.”
• Residential development opportunities.
“The last item, of most importance, I think, is the residential development opportunities,” Presti said. “You have great historic neighborhoods, you have neighborhoods that are newer. It’s really important to also have opportunities for new development.
“It could be single-family, multi-family, on the river, near the golf course, but opportunities for new growth to attract different segments of the population that want to live in different types of neighborhoods,” she continued. “Also, additional housing downtown, as well.”
Economic Recovery Framework
The framework consists of the project objective, three key focus areas, six opportunity areas and, within each area, economic development initiatives.
Presti noted three key focus areas: capitalize on small-town community strengths and magnetism; promote homegrown business growth as well as location; and nurture and grow assets in nature-based recreation, food production and arts.
“Opportunity areas are sort of like sectors, areas that Jefferson can begin to focus on because these are high opportunities based on what you have here,” Presti explained. “The initiatives are really where people can start to get involved.
“The city will have a strong role, the county will have a role, your economic development group for Jefferson County, neighboring communities, school districts, the secondary school districts, as well,” she continued. “Thinking about how to advance each of these opportunity areas will be key to success.”
The opportunity areas are:
• Recreation and nature-based activities: Capitalize on Jefferson’s rivers and public land recreation opportunities.
• Healthcare: Target healthcare industry and healthcare higher education growth.
• Small-town living: Enhance the downtown and riverfront to be a destination for residents and visitors.
• Business and workforce development: Promote development in targeted areas for business.
• Value-add food production: Leverage agricultural strengths of area to advance economic growth in local foods and food production.
• Green economy: Strategically promote green economy business development opportunities to maximize existing efforts.
Following the presentation, attendees were asked to take part in two exercises providing discussion and written feedback on the proposed plan.
Attendees included Erik Anderson, president and CEO of Basin Precision Machining LLC; Ellen Waldmer, past-president of the Jefferson Rotary Club; Julia Chady, owner of InDeco Interior Design Company; Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Ben Brantmeier, also former Jefferson city attorney; Jefferson Public Library director Leann Lehner; Gayle Krek, retired veterinarian Jeff Hamann; and Mary Nimm, program assistant in the Jefferson County Parks Department.
The first exercise was an effort to gain feedback on the citywide economic and redevelopment opportunities.
Anderson said he felt the residential development opportunities were “absolutely” a high priority.
“As a large employer in the area, I don’t have anybody that lives in Jefferson,” Anderson said. “We’re trying to add employees — a lot of employees — over the next few years and we need to have an attractive place for them to be near work.”
Hamann agreed, saying high-end family homes along the rivers would attract “high-end people,” which would help the entire economy.
Waldmer, on the other hand, put natural assets connections up high. She said she felt it was an easier goal to reach quickly.
“From what I’ve heard, that age group that we’re missing in this community is attracted to the community if it has these types of things,” she said.
“I agree with the natural asset connection needing to be up near the top,” he said. “Highlighting what we’ve got, we’re going outdoors; let’s bring the people who normally would go up north to Jefferson because we do have a lot of the same amenities here. You could drive five hours north to find the stuff we have here.”
Krek brought up the business park growth areas, questioning the status of the proposed osteopathic medical college.
City Administrator Freitag responded, explaining that he was hoping for some “fairly major news” around next February.
“It’s really confidential, but the medical college may undergo a new location change,” he said. “Right now, it’s proposed to go on the north end of town. That may change, but that’s going to take a little while to go through the process.”
Freitag noted that he believes the primary reason for the potential relocation, which would be within the City of Jefferson limits, is accessibility.
“The site that we have on the north end of the community, I would say, is accessible, but it’s going to take a lot of rebuilding of a lot of streets to get back to the interchange,” he said. “The new location will have much less transportation-related improvements. It’s a much more, I think, visible site.”
He said that if anything really has changed in regard to the concept, it’s how the money to start the college will be raised.
“The goal always was to try to philanthropically raise the money through a large naming gift, as well as some other donors to try to fund the entire project,” Freitag explained. “That’s about $110 million, give or take. That seems probably pretty likely not to be the case. I think the discussion now is the project gets funded with about half of that with bonds issued or capitalized and the other half raised philanthropically.
“I’ve worked on this project a long, long time,” he added. “It’s extremely complicated starting a medical college basically from scratch. For me, personally, I think I’m as optimistic as ever that the project can get to the finish line.”
The second exercise asked attendees to indicate which of the six opportunity areas were most and least important. Also, within each individual area, what initiative was most critical to the advancement of that area.
The Vanderwalle & Associates Inc. representatives pointed to the small-town living area as a “big one” with “a lot of potential that sort of touches on the other things talked about.” In addition, it has several initiatives.
“I think we really need to strengthen our downtown retail, give people a reason why they want to come and visit Jefferson, why they would come downtown,” Chady said. “I know the chamber’s been working with the city too on some of the things down there, but I just think we need to really improve what we have downtown and then the people will come.”
She said she thinks Jefferson needs a shop that sells Jefferson and Wisconsin products that promote the area.
Brantmeier cited the façade grant as a way to improve downtown.
“I used it when I bought my office and then paid back,” he said, referring to what now is Thompson Legal LLC. “I think it got lent out again. That revolving money to improve the appearance of the façade and to make it historic is significant.”
Brantmeier explained that one has to invest the grant plus more dollars to get money back to make the façade look historic.
“I think that’s significant, especially when you go downtown and you look at a lot of our buildings and how nice they look and how historic they remain,” he said. “You look at other communities and they don’t have that, so putting more money into the façade grant for the downtown district is a good thing.”
Hamann said he feels easy parking is important.
Waldmer, a former downtown business owner, agreed.
“A lot of times people didn’t come in because they couldn’t find a place to park,” Waldmer said.
“Parking out front was always full and there was no close parking lot nearby. And it needs to be close like he’s saying because people would go to Tan-a-Latte because there’s a parking lot right behind, but I didn’t have parking by my spot.”
Freitag noted that, like many small Wisconsin communities, retail “fled” the downtown years ago and moved to the edge of communities.
“What’s really different is, here you have the civic core downtown,” he said. “You have the courthouse, the county administrative offices, city hall, the library, post offices, things that bring people downtown every day. But really what you have is businesses, and they’re not retail businesses, that tend to cluster around the civic core.
“You typically see that in county-seat communities where the courthouse and administrative offices are still located downtown,” Freitag continued.
“So, I think, that’s probably why you don’t see a lot of property vacancies, but you just don’t have a lot of retail. That is a missing component and it has been for a long time in our community.”
Chady noted the flip side of that was, when local businesses do move downtown, they need to get people to shop so they can stay open.
Housing development and the other opportunities will help with that, she said.
The final draft of the Economic Recovery Plan is expected to go before the Jefferson Common Council for approval at one of the December meetings.