The dining tables at Maranatha Baptist University were crowded with community members Wednesday morning as Watertown Redevelopment Authority Chairman Rob Marchant addressed an audience of over 200 people during the school's annual Economic Business Breakfast. The focus of Marchant's presentation was largely centered around the goals and progress of the RDA since its creation last year.
He said he agreed to become chairman of the authority, because of his affinity towards the Watertown area and his sense of responsibility to future generations to lay the foundation for a thriving community.
"We're here because we think we can make a difference," Marchant said. "For the first time in 20 years of living here, I believe transformative change can happen in our downtown."
Marchant spoke at length about the RDA's primary focus, a project that seeks to transform the 100 block of West Main Street into a hotel and town square. He acknowledged the challenges the plan faces, mainly the difficulty in reaching agreements with and relocating the four remaining businesses on the block, something he said the RDA does not want to force.
"Let's be honest, we don't know if we're going to find a place for the newspaper, Triana's or the Chalet to relocate. We think we will, but we don't know," Marchant said. "In some communities, you would see a situation of the state statutes and the city government coming in and taking those properties. This RDA's not going to do that. If we can't find a way to make this work for everybody, we're going to have to have a different plan."
Despite this uncertainty, Marchant said he, along with other city leaders think the current path is the best proposed so far.
"In my view, if we can't figure this out now, then I think my generation will probably have missed its shot at breathing life into the economic future of the downtown."
He said as beneficial as the increased tax revenue brought on by a multimillion dollar hotel development would be, it is only a by-product of creating spaces where people want to go.
"It's not just about the money. It's really about our social fabric in the community," Marchant said. "It's about the public spaces that we make available for one another, to gather with our family and friends. It's about creating vitality, building a vibrant place where people, local and out-of-towners, make it a point to go visit."
Following his address, Marchant opened up a dialogue with the audience that crowded Maranatha's dining facility.
When asked about the strengths of the community, Alderman Augie Tietz noted that the Rock River is an important attraction that helps makes Watertown unique.
"We've tried a lot of different things to get things rolling downtown and this is probably the best concept we've come up with," Tietz said.
Library board member Mike Kujawski said he senses a palpable change in the community.
"Good enough is no longer good enough in this town," he said. "The standard that we're shooting for is not mediocrity anymore. We owe it to the next generation to raise the bar."
Carol Bohlman, owner of Lyons Irish Pub asked Marchant if there are other locations being considered for the proposed hotel such as further west towards the Highway 26 Bypass.
Marchant said although the 100 block plan lacks complete certainty, the RDA's focus is currently on the downtown area because that's where it has invested the most time and money, noting the positive hotel feasibility study conducted in 2016.
"Maybe there are other opportunities for us," Marchant said. "Right now though, this has been the directive from the common council and the mayor. This is the vision we think we can get done."
Library board member Erin O'Neill spoke to Watertown's need for a community space that could accommodate up to 300 people.
RDA Executive Director Kristin Fish responded, saying banquet space is an important part of the hotel project and is currently a requirement in the RDA's temporary agreement with developer Urban Visions.
"They had planned for 250, but that could easily be increased to 300," Fish said.
Ed Wolff, owner of Triana's Trophy Case, asked whether or not the city is planning a referendum on the 100 block project to measure community support.
"From my perspective, I wouldn't oppose it, Marchant said. "As long as the question is fair and as long as it means we don't put the brakes on everything we're doing. It might be good to know."
Marchant said the project's future progress will also be dependent on the next mayor.
"We know we have a supportive mayor now, but we don't know who that next mayor will be. We don't know if that next mayor will completely change course."
He concluded the morning by acknowledging that change is hard, especially in a community like Watertown.
"This is a little bit of a shock to the system, Marchant said. "This is a little bit of an identity switch for us. I think we have to do a better job of communicating this to help people see what we can do."