Jefferson's west bank comes to life - Watertown Daily Times Online : News

Jefferson's west bank comes to life

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Posted: Friday, October 4, 2013 11:51 am

JEFFERSON -- It's certainly a different, more modern and vibrant world these days on the west side of the Rock River in downtown Jefferson.

The former Borg Textiles factory at 222 S. Wisconsin Drive has been rejuvenated into the amazingly clean and diverse Jefferson Area Business Center (JABC). The massive facility has the further distinction of being one of the only privately owned and operated business incubators in the state. Most other "incubators" are municipally operated with a hired director.

Just up the river shore to the north, the once flood-prone yet historic tavern at the intersection of Seifert and Milwaukee streets has been transformed into a virtually flood-proof and beautiful restaurant. Its owners say it is more structurally sound than it was when it was built in the late 1800s.

Jefferson businessman and historic preservationist Ed Soleska was quick to give his son, Mike, much of the credit for the renovations and flood-mitigation work that has been completed at Heron's Landing restaurant and bar, located at the river's edge just south of the city's iconic pedestrian bridge.

Soleska, along with fellow entrepreneur Steve Lewis, owner of the JABC, Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann, City Administrator Tim Freitag and Jefferson Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Janet Werner, invited the Daily Times to a breakfast meeting this week during which they explained the evolution of these projects that tie in with the city's west shore River Walk initiative. The major, first phases of these projects culminated recently.

"If it wasn't for my son Mike, none of this would be like it is," Soleska said, also quickly giving praise to engineer Boyd E. Coleman III of Struc Rite Design, Inc. architectural and engineering services, whom Soleska said was familiar with older buildings such as the one now housing Heron's Landing. "Mike works in construction. He's very creative and artistic, and when you go into the building you see his vision."

Soleska said he "fell in love with the building," a former brewery and tavern, and bought it in 1994. He added Maas Bros. of Watertown also contributed to the project.

Since the historic flood of the summer of 2008, the renovation and fortification of the structure against the river has been a joint effort Soleska has undertaken with federal, state, county and city governments in terms of flood mitigation and in gaining necessary approvals. In addition, Soleska said he has tried to keep everything "local," from the hiring of contractors to the planting of attractive native foliage he culls from his own nearby rural residential property.

Freitag said in his quarter-century of aiding communities with economic development, the post-2008 flood mitigation in Jefferson ranks in his "top five" projects in terms of complexity of scope and scale.

"Both Ed's, Steve's and others' properties were removed from the floodplain," Freitag said. "These are not run-of-the-mill projects. You don't see a lot of this in Jefferson or anywhere in Wisconsin."

Freitag noted Lewis and Soleska both had ambitious improvement projects in mind for their properties prior to the flood of 2008, owing, at that time, to a better economy.

He said Soleska had been considering constructing condominiums.

"Then, two great events of our times occurred," Freitag said. "The economy went south and we had the historic flood of June 2008."

He added, however, that out of these crises came opportunity.

"Everyone understood that, to invest in these properties, you had to get them conforming and they took them up out of the floodplain," Freitag said. "This effort was complex and expensive. Both businesses accessed federal dollars. Their projects competed well with others and (former Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium Director) Dennis Heling coordinated much of this effort. (Seifert Avenue) was moved, other things happened and the city had to put in flexible zoning. We needed to do that and we created a mixed-use district."

Freitag pointed out FEMA funding for the projects traveled from the federal government to the state level, where it was distributed within 31 counties affected by the flood. Soleska utilized $675,000 of this disbursement, while Lewis accepted $1 million to bring his buildings into compliance.

"I had flood insurance also," Lewis said, "but FEMA came in and helped out."

Both men also availed themselves of private and personal financing to get their projects off the ground.

Lewis said both projects "were shovel-ready," and those positive factors gave both advantages over others when it came to requesting government money.

"Steve split his building, with the northern half taken out of the floodplain and the southern half to be protected by a flood berm," Freitag said, adding Lewis' business center is comprised of a "clever little design" and the southern berm was being constructed this morning.

"This is not run-of-the-mill stuff," Freitag said. "This is all a significant first phase of the projects here. I hope this continues on the waterfront."

"The benefits of the efforts on the part of public and private entities are self-evident here," Oppermann said. "But it's been a long road."

All at the meeting said realization of the projects was the result of incredible coordination by people including Heling, the city, the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce and many others. They agreed it could not have taken place without teamwork and cooperation from numerous parties.

"As long as I've sat in the chamber office, we've always thought about how to improve the river," Werner said. "With these two redevelopment projects, what's neat to see is that the buildings weren't torn down after the flood. I commend Ed and Steve for sticking in there and it's beautiful down here now."

As Werner spoke to her redevelopment colleagues, the group was seated at a comfortable table set in a massive, attractive wood-floored conference/meeting room, adorned right down to historically accurate windows overlooking the Rock River. This space was once the sweaty Borg factory floor where 300 people toiled. Before that, it was Seifert's Woolen Mill.

Lewis said he is confident the U.S. economy is coming back to life and he wants to locate three condos in the complex soon. The solar panels he placed on the roof of the expansive facility have been a resounding success.

"They paid for themselves," he said, and on a later tour, Lewis consistently pointed out areas of energy cost-savings.

The architectural firm of Craig Ellsworth assisted on all projects.

Lewis' factory-turned-business center is an amazing place in terms of its diversity of businesses located within its walls. It is also fascinating in terms of its artistic decor, which includes paintings by local artists. It is also enhanced by creative, environmentally conscious additions such as a fish pond with a water-recycling device that aerates the pond and tropical plantings, it has a water-driven fan to cool air and skylights with mirrors to intensify incoming natural light. A leather belt-driven fan system also cools the building. Never a man to miss a detail, Lewis has a mannequin pointing the way to bathrooms.

"We try to make it whimsical in here," as he pointed out various pieces of humorous, light-hearted art.

It is further obvious the building has been constructed by the environmentally conscious because a new stairway that leads down to the first floor of the facility has been built using beams from the former Borg factory. Lewis noted nine handicap-accessible entrances and exits.

"That's more than most hospitals," he said.

As the tour progressed to the lower parts of the facility, Lewis pointed out a first floor that has been raised 32 inches to keep the site safe from floodwaters. The facility, once 130,000 square feet, now measures 100,000 square feet due in great part to the need to remove a center portion to protect it from flooding. Lewis said the first floor is now 2 feet out of the 100-year floodplain.

The JABC is home to a variety of professional services. It includes a conference room, computer workstations, an office supply center, shipping and receiving bays, climate-controlled ministorage and numerous manufacturing facilities. The once rundown facility now brims with life. Inhabiting the structure are 24 tenant/businesses that supply car washes with materials, a lift-chair manufacturer, a rustic furniture-maker and a manufacturer of children's furniture. It is home to others, including the Jefferson County Literacy Council, an attorney, a message therapist, yoga instructor, engineers and a linguist.

"We are currently seeking insurance agents, realtors and others to locate here," Lewis said of the potential tenants he is courting.

"We love it here," Rocky Baldry, director of the Sports and Spine Clinic, which specializes in physical therapy and is located near the west entrance to the complex, said. The clinic has been housed in the JABC for more than three years.

"It's a neat transition of a building with a lot of history," Baldry said. "People come through here who were here before it was the business center and they say it's tremendous. It suits our needs perfectly and there's not a more unique building for housing a therapy clinic."

Lewis said he hopes to provide space for more banquets, breakfasts, corporate events and receptions at the JABC in the future. Apartments and condos are also on the horizon.

Providing a tour of Heron's Landing, Soleska pointed out all the work that has been done since his family purchased the structure, including the installation of a 70-foot-long, 11-foot-high retaining wall at the river's edge that is reinforced with rebar. The wall consists of concrete corner blocks weighing 3,000 pounds, main blocks weighing 2,400 pounds and cap blocks of 600 pounds.

"We did everything beyond the code," Soleska said.

Inside the restaurant and bar, Soleska pointed out details that will astound most customers. The handles on various doors are the original bronze antiques that date to the building's construction in 1898. The wooden bar is original and historic lighting fixtures have been affixed to the walls. Historic photos of Jefferson adorn the rooms and serve as sound-baffling cushions that combat echo.

Soleska said future development plans for Heron's Landing include an addition to the south, docks for boats on the river and a pavilion to the north of the tavern that might hold 125 people.

"We took down five buildings in this area to make this possible," Soleska said of the overall renovation. "This is now a better building than when it was built. We're here to stay."

A west bank development dedication and ribbon-cutting is scheduled for Oct. 12 at 10 a.m. and will coincide with the fourth annual Jefferson Art Walk.

"All of us here believe in the community and Ed and Steve put their money behind what they said," Freitag said. "I think they are here for the long haul. This was a neighborhood in decline, due to its age. (The west bank) was a neighborhood in need of reinvestment and we hope this will jump start that."

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