Following a heated public comment foray lasting over an hour Tuesday evening, the Common Council voted 6-1 in approving a resolution for the $450,000 purchase of a property parcel located at 1905 E. 14th Street (CTH G).
First District Alderman Paul Russell abstained from voting and 6th District Alderwoman Mary Ball stood opposed.
The resolution came to the table following a June 7 recommendation from the city’s Redevelopment Authority for the purchase of the former Fox Point Sportswear property. As part of the recommendation, the current owner of the property would be responsible for the demolition and abatement of the standing, blighted Fox Point building. Upon the property being cleared and clean, the city would then purchase for the $450,000 price tag.
A future redevelopment opportunity for the property includes a potential 60-unit residential apartment complex, pending several contingencies.
Per the RDA’s recommendation, the Merrill Housing Authority (MHA) and Madison-based Horizon Design Build Manage Inc. would oversee the project, if it were to come to fruition.
Of the most vital for such contingencies are Wisconsin Housing & Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) tax credits to be acquired by the Merrill Housing Authority (MHA), consistent with those acquired with the recently-announced Park Place and related property expansion.
Obtaining WHEDA tax credits is a competitive application process. The Merrill Housing Authority/Horizon application must be submitted by the end of June 2016 to be eligible for tax credits that will be awarded in April 2017.
Eight community members addressed the Council Tuesday evening, seven standing opposed to the prospective development. Among those opposed were Warren Ament and Cynthia Lambrecht who reside in the vicinity of the Fox Point property.
“I am not opposed to a business going into that area,” Ament stated. “But I have been told you plan on building low-income housing there and I just don’t see a need for it. We need good jobs in the city before any more housing.”
Lambrecht cited a scheduled public hearing date in July as her basis for opposition.
“In my opinion you are putting the cart before the horse here,” she stated. “I am told you plan on voting for this low-income housing project tonight and I just don’t see how that is fair or right. How can you vote tonight and hold a public hearing in July? How can you vote tonight amongst yourselves before holding a hearing to hear what people have to say?”
Zoning administrator Darin Pagel later clarified that the purpose of the July 5 public hearing is for re-zoning of the property, rather than actual property development.
RDA member Amanda Kostman was the sole public commentor who spoke in favor of the prospective redevelopment.
“I am an RDA member and I am a researcher,” Kostman stated. “I have heard many questions tonight and have heard and seen many more around the community. So I have done some research and I have some information which may answer some of your questions.”
Kostman proceeded to indicate research both nationwide and locally; seemingly indicative of an absence in a rise in crime due to the construction of income-based housing.
“Church Mutual is one of our largest employers,” she added. “Forty percent of Church Mutual employees reside outside of Merrill, due to lack of suitable housing in the area.”
Following passage of the purchase, 3rd District Alderman Ryan Schwartzman advised those present of what the council action truly entailed.
“I would like to point out we are simply approving the purchase for the property tonight and demolition of an under-utilized building with tons of asbestos. We are not voting to put a shovel in the ground tomorrow to build something there. For anything to be built on this property, will require approval by this council at a later date.”
“This property has sat vacant and blighted for a number of years,” added 8th District alderman Tim Meehean. “It’s about time we take care of it.”
Prior to the Council meeting, the Committee of the Whole unanimously approved a bid from Athens-based SD Ellenbecker Contractors in the amount of $1,588,780, for the construction of a new Expo Center and Merrill Area Community Enrichment Center at the new Merrill Festival Grounds.
The decision also came after lengthy discussion.
According to documents released by the city, $1.3 million has been raised for the project in the form of grants and fund raising efforts. Key donors having committed to the center include $750,000 from the Bierman Family Foundation; $250,000 of funding allocated from TID #3 and $150,000 allocated from the Parks and Recreation Department budget.
The Judd Alexander Foundation, Bader Foundation and Greenheck Foundation have each committed to $50,000 donations.
Beyond that funding, however – including a $40,000 commercial kitchen allowance – the center comes with a $328,000 shortfall.
Russell voiced concern with the remaining funding deficit.
“I understand funding efforts are continuing, but what if we are unable to raise the remaining balance? I don’t like the idea of supporting a bid we don’t have all of the necessary funding for. I think that’s a bad practice to get into.”
Johnson advised other potential funding outlets are still available and cited the need for a new enrichment center.
“If we do not build, we risk the safety of those at the enrichment center. This is something we need for the people in our community, who need these services.”
Enrichment Center director Tammie Mrachek echoed Johnson’s sentiments.
“If we do not move forward, we will ultimately have to give back $900,000 of the funding we have acquired so far and that would be devastating,” Mrachek added. “Safety is the most important thing. What we have now is not a safe environment for us if we were to continue to operate at our present location. Anyone who has been down there knows the dangers we and our participants face.”
Ball also spoke in favor of the center.
“We have an aging demographic in our area, there is no doubt about that,” Ball stated. “Granted, the building may not be what everyone wants, but I see it as a blessing we have gotten this far in the process. I think it’s being planned in a great location, in close proximity to Pine Crest, the high school and Washington Elementary. I agree this is something we need in our community.”
“We owe our elders this much,” mayor Bialecki added. “They have been in our community for many years, raising families and paid their dues. They deserve more than a hole in the ground at city hall.”
The 20,000 square foot facility is planned to feature a commercial kitchen, walking track, heated floors as well as various rooms to accommodate sewing, arts and crafts.
According to Johnson, construction of the center will progress this fall following the razing of the Schultz Building at the festival grounds, with an estimated completion date of next summer, in time for the 2017 Lincoln County Fair.
In other matters Tuesday evening, the council approved a $917,262.00 bid from Ironwood, MI-based Ruostala Construction Inc. for the upcoming 6th Street Reconstruction project. Council members also approved purchase of properties located at 2606 E. Main St. ($18,000) and 2604 E.Main St. ($55,000) for the facilitation of future commercial re-development.