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(Milton, WI) By Neil Johnson, Gazette

“Development Mania” might be an overstatement, but Milton City Administrator Jerry Schuetz said he's seen a recent jump in interest from companies seeking to build or expand in the business park along the new Highway 26 bypass.

In the four months since the bypass was completed, the city has entered into talks with six commercial and industrial developers eyeing parcels along the bypass, Schuetz said.

Compare that to a few years ago, when the local economy still hung slack in the doldrums of the great recession.

“Through all of 2011, the phone rung, I think, three times the whole year with serious development inquiries. And it was about the same in 2012--slow,” Schuetz said.

At a time when construction of new commercial properties seems to be picking up throughout the area—particularly along the Highway 14/Highway 26 corridor on Janesville's north end, Milton is starting to feel the local economic pulse quicken.

Right now, Schuetz said, the city has at least three local companies eying land for business expansions in the 400-acre Crossroads Business Park, which extends from the Highway 59/Highway 26 Bypass corridor north along Janesville Street on the city's east side.

Add that to the city's ongoing study and recruitment effort for a potential hotel where the new bypass bends east around Milton and a handful of prospects for commercial development in that same area.

When the Highway 26 bypass opened to traffic, the city's phone lines began ring with developers at the other end, Schuetz said. That could be a sign of economic recovery, but Schuetz believes it's also because a major arterial roadway that was torn up for months is now completed and reconfigured.

People can see how the new alignment of Highway 26 operates and how it connects to undeveloped portions of the city, including the Crossroads Business Park.    

“It's all in 3-D now. What I see, now, from my perspective, is recognition that commerce in the region is really well-positioned because of Highway 26 and Highway 14—state highways where there is an awful lot of traffic.” Schuetz said.

Traffic estimates from the DOT suggest between 16,000 and 19,000 cars a day pass Milton on the bypass.

“In Milton, that presents new opportunities. The roadway is repositioned. People want to be there. They want to be where the cars are going and coming,” Schuetz said.

The Crossroads Business Park is a mix of city-owned and privately owned land zoned for industrial and commercial. The park is in a tax increment financing district, which allows the city to grant tax incentives to aid development there.

About half the available parcels in the park were annexed in fall 2013 to bolster the inventory of land available for development, officials said.

The uptick in tire kicking and deal wrangling from both local and out-of-town companies has prompted city staff to shift duties so Schuetz can handle what has become a larger economic development workload.

“The phone is ringing, now. And when it does, it's not surprising when it's a developer. It's getting to be that City Hall staff all knows their (developers') names because of the frequency with which they're calling. They dial in to me and say, 'Jerry, this one's important,'” Schuetz said.

One surprise, Schuetz said, is the uptick in Milton business seeking land in the Crossroads Business Park to expand. That interest has come since the bypass opened, he said.

Schuetz said one local company is now in talks with they city about a potential 18,000-square-foot expansion on land between Sunnyside Drive and the bypass.

He wouldn't give details about that potential development because talks are preliminary, but the plan likely will be in discussed by the plan commission in February.

Another company, a Milton fertilizer dealer, is seeking to buy land from a private owner to relocate and set up expanded operations along Highway 59 east of the bypass, Schuetz said.

And local company Carl's Place, a manufacturer of large movie projection screens at 1223 Storrs Lake Road, seeks land somewhere in the business park to build a new facility. Company owner Carl Markestad told The Gazette he's negotiating with the city for tax incentives to build a 12,000- to 15,000-square-foot facility.

That would triple the size of his operation, which now employs about a dozen workers in 5,000 square feet of leased space on Storrs Lake Road.

Markestad said his small, 6-year-old startup business, which is heavily reliant on online sales, has grown in lockstep with the improving economy. Still, he's been surprised by the sudden interest from other businesses in the Crossroads Business Park.

“Carl's Place has been here in the older part of (Crossroads) business park since 2010, when the economy had dumped. In that time, there hasn't been much change out here,” Markestad said. “Now all the sudden, I talk to Jerry (Schuetz), and there's all this different stuff going on. It's happening fast.

"It sounds like in the next two years we'll see all kinds of different stuff pop up in the business park.”

In 2011 and 2012, Milton was in talks over a startup called Carbon Green, a company that sought to develop a tomato-growing greenhouse that would rely on experimental technology.

Talks fizzled in 2012 because investors at the time still were reeling from the recession and were wary of risking capital on experimental startups, Schuetz said.

“That's not so much the case anymore,” Schuetz said. “Rock County's economic indicators show modest, positive signs. The financial institutions are playing a critical role in that recovery in getting back to doing business again.”

Schuetz argues that a few projects recently completed or in the works might be driving interest in new developments.

He said investors and companies are perking up over new developments in Milton, such as the Parker YMCA, a $4 million privately funded facility completed last fall.

This fall, a former manufacturing facility on Plumb Street on the city's east side will house Blackhawk Technical College's new Advanced Manufacturing Training Center.  

Schuetz said industries looking to develop in Milton are taking notice of the new training center because it would provide a nearby supply of specialized, trained workers.      

“That (the manufacturing training center) is a big boost for the region, but it's huge for Milton. You talk to industrial developers, and it's exactly what they're looking for.” Schuetz said. “It's something that really sets us apart from our competition.”


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