JEFFERSON — A couple of years ago, the former Jefferson County Highway department site was full of gravel, concrete and debris of old buildings.
Now the area has just been transformed into a new park, dedicated to opening up greenspace in the center of town and providing access to the Rock River for walkers, boaters and fishers.
The new park is located at 424 North Elizabeth Ave.
There’s a trail along the river, a boat launch, a kayak launch similar to the one at Rotary Waterfront Park, a fishing area and a dock area with a mooring pier where visiting boats can tie up for a couple of hours, allowing people to stop and enjoy lunch in town, for example.
The park also includes a main parking lot and a separate parking area for the boat launch, and a connection to the Glacial Drumlin Trail.
Working together on this process were the City of Jefferson and Jefferson County, with essential cooperation from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The project was supported by two major grants, a Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Grant in the amount of $434,800 and a $117,575 Recreational Boating Facilities grant.
Both grants provided 50 percent matches, requiring an infusion of local funds as well.
Jefferson County continues to own the land, and the new 4-acre park is considered a joint county-city venture, the first of its kind.
County planners were relieved a few years ago to move the highway department to a new, more expansive and more accommodating site on the southern edge of Jefferson.
But because the old highway department site was located in a floodplain, strict rules regulated what could be developed in its place.
Thus, city and county planners worked together to turn what could have been an eyesore into an asset.
Right alongside the Rock River, the old highway department site was a great place for a park, improving the look of the whole riverside.
And the new park provided an opportunity for the city to put in a new street, a continuation of North Elizabeth Ave., which will ultimately facilitate desirable development across the street from the newly dedicated park, Keller said.
“We couldn’t include the cost of the street in the grant, so the city paid for that,” Keller said.
Meanwhile, the county put up the funds to match the grants from the state.
While not all of the numbers are yet in, the project is valued at around $1.1 million overall.
“This has been in the works a long time,” said Cyndi Keller, Jefferson parks and recreation director.
The planning timeline began around May 2018 with the city and county working with a DNR rep on grant applications.
The grant cycle that planners were trying for started in February 2019.
The grants sought for this project were large enough they had to go through the state’s Joint Finance Committee, and state Senator Steve Nass helped with that part of the process.
The grants stipulated that the project needed to be completed by June of this year.
“The pandemic put a little wrench in the process early on, but we are essentially done other than a couple of little details,” Keller said.
The city extended the street right away, taking the opportunity to extend water and sewer connections along with it.
Then collaborations began on the park itself.
The county highway department did the grading of the site, while the City of Jefferson took on the grant-writing.
Thus, the city also controlled the contract for construction on the site, overseen by Yanke Construction of Athens, which had also worked on the city’s Riverwalk.
Meanwhile the city and county hammered out an intergovernmental pact laying out which entity would be responsible for which aspects of the project and stipulating how the park would be run and maintained into the future.
The R.A. Smith Design/Engineering Firm handled the permitting for the DNR and plans for grading, parking, electrical connections, etc.
“Right now, the park is about 90 percent completed,” Keller said. “There’s some landscape work to finish — stumps to grind out and trees to plant.”
In addition, there are already plans in the works to improve the park in the near future with a shelter, which was not included in the original budget.
The county and city are working on a fundraising effort to garner the funds to put in a shelter down the line to serve the public.
Other future improvements could include a playground, since there isn’t much in this area for town in terms of children’s play areas.
As the park moves forward, the city will oversee the daily maintenance such as mowing and the upkeep of the boat launch, which is supported by user fees.
The city is offering an annual sticker pass for people to use the boat launch.
“The boat launch fees will go into a separate fund,” Keller said. “We’ll keep that and use it toward improvements to the boat launch.”
The dedicationA formal ribbon cutting ceremony for the new park took place Saturday, April 10, featuring a series of speeches about the project.
Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann started off with a welcome speech. Then Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier and State Rep. Steve Nass offered up remarks, followed by a few final comments from Oppermann and finally the ribbon cutting ceremony.
“We are just excited to be part of this collaborative effort,” Keller said. “If you look at what this area looked like three years ago, this is a major transformation, and it’s only going to get better.”
“We feel this is a crucial part of the economic development of this area,” Wehmeier said.
He said that the park offered a great way to “reuse” a worn-out space and open this area back up to the public, while the new street makes way for new higher end development across from the park.
“This project cleaned up the old site, allowed us to share costs and create a public benefit,” Wehmeier said.
The county administrator tipped his hat to the many planners who contributed, from retired parks director Joe Nehmer who had the initial vision for this project to current parks manager Kevin Wiesmann to employees Mary Truman and Brian Udovich.
On behalf of the DNR, Ritchie said that people really value outdoor recreation and this new park will help connect more people with these opportunities, both at the park itself and along the Rock River.
“There has been increasing demand in recent years for recreational boating facilities like these,” he said.
When it contained the old highway department buildings, this neighborhood provided no access to the river. Now, he said, it offers up that access and improves the appearance of the area with beautiful greenspace.”
The state DNR rep commended the city and county for working together for the benefit of all, in conjunction with grant funding that allowed things to come together much more swiftly than they otherwise would have.