Old Jefferson building could be winery

Rob Lewis of Lewis Station Winery in Lake Mills announced his plans to rehab the historic stable along the east side of the Rock River in downtown Jefferson Tuesday night. Lewis is shown on the south end of the building. He wants to re-open it as a new Jefferson winery in 2020.

JEFFERSON -- Yet another rustic and historic downtown Jefferson building is on its way to re-purposing for the 21st century as an ambitious Lake Mills vintner announces plans to convert it to a winery.

Rob Lewis, operator of the Lewis Station Winery in Lake Mills, updated Jefferson city officials on his hopes for converting an old stable building, that dates to the 1800s on the east bank of the Rock River, into his second area winery. The building, to be renamed Stable Rock Winery, is located between Jefferson's municipal building to the south and the Racine Street Bridge to the north. The city's pedestrian bridge sits just feet west. It was the Rock Bottom Brewery before that business moved a short distance south to the former train station.

Similar to the Jefferson building he is interested in, Lewis took a former gas station in Lake Mills and rehabilitated it for a vastly different use. Lewis told the council his idea to start his "urban winery" in Lake Mills nine years ago was unique for its time. He said wineries in the upper Midwest then were mostly seasonal, but he wanted his to be a year-round destination. It currently attracts 50,000 patrons annually, with these people enjoying what the Lewis Station Winery website touts as, "small-batch, hand crafted premium award-winning wines using a low sulfite, natural approach to wine making."

"My passion nine years ago pushed our Lake Mills project forward," Lewis said, adding the winery has been a resounding success.

"I'm as, or more, excited to do the same here in Jefferson with this building," Lewis said. "I want to be part of the downtown restructuring."

Lewis has plans to re-do the building's weathered facade, remove paint, improve the stone foundation and Cream City brickwork, put on a new roof and gutters, and, of course, remake the interior as a historic winery.

Lewis said the interior, as currently proposed, will include a wine production facility, full replacement of boarded-up windows, a tasting room and many other features, with the use of an expansive upper level, as yet, undecided.

"I haven't even been up there (to the second floor)," Lewis told the Daily Times during a visit to the building following Tuesday's common council meeting.

Offerings of the winery would include tours, tastings, wine and beer, meals and appetizers, retail shopping, music, live theater and meeting space. He said his long-range plans include addition of a balcony on the building's west side that would overlook the Rock River. That might come in 3-5 years.

Wines and hard ciders would be featured, with some made on the premises. German and regional craft beers would also be an offer.

According to Lewis, there would be an emphasis on the German history of the structure and the interior would have a museum-like feel.

Lewis anticipates the facility would play host to 20,000 visitors in its year of opening. He said staffing numbers have yet to be determined.

As part of its contribution to the endeavor, Jefferson's common council on Tuesday approved city purchase of the building, then the almost immediate sale of the property to Lewis. The cost of the property will be $100,000, with Lewis planning to make $130,000 in improvements.

The handling of the matter in this way, according to city Administrator Tim Freitag, is part of a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) District No. 5 project. Freitag said the city noticed that the property owner, Joe Tate, had been trying to sell the building for the past three years, with no luck. The city needed additional parking for events at Rotary park on the river to the south and had plans to buy the former stable/livery, then raze it. The result would be the loss of a historic building, but the addition of 40 parking spaces. The city took notice of Lewis' interest in preserving the site and this fit in with the city's desire to save the building, deemed to be an integral part of downtown Jefferson history. It is on the state and national registers of historic sites.

"The building is in relatively bad shape and needs investment," Freitag said after the meeting. "Joe Tate had the building on the market for the past three years and no one expressed interest. The city owns property to the north and was going to buy it for parking space. So now we will buy it from Joe Tate's LLC and deal with Rob -- in that the city will sell it to him on a land contract basis with the stipulation that in two years he put in approximately $130,000 in improvements."

Freitag stressed the city's desire to preserve the building.

"It's a significant contributing building to the city's downtown historic district, because it was the stable for the old Jefferson House Hotel, one of the most historic buildings downtown," Freitag said.

As an incentive to Lewis, if the wine-maker can complete the improvements he thinks he can, the city will forgive the $100,000 cost it has invested in the deal. The forgiveness of this debt is being initiated as an incentive for the building to be saved by a private business entity.

"This is a several hundred thousand dollar investment (on the part of Lewis) So for the city to do this, that's the trade-off. This ties in with the bigger picture the city has of trying to redevelop that whole corridor of a few city sites along the east shore of the river and finding a viable, long-term occupier like Rob. Rob appears to be experienced and potentially long-term and this ties in with the city's plans," Freitag said.

City leaders said zoning the property as a winery should not be difficult.

"This is part of the city trying to spur development downtown," Mayor Dale Oppermann said, echoing Freitag's remarks.

Lewis described a timeline for the project that would see it opening in the spring or early summer of 2020.

"In Lake Mills, the idea for an urban winery was untested," Lewis said. "I now have the experience of nine years and I have had all the bumps and bruises. I will probably take a few more with this, but we are very excited at this prospect."

"Rob has the passion, the vision and the wherewithal to do this," Oppermann said. "This will definitely be a positive addition to downtown Jefferson."

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