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Ag group considering other area communities for complex

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Gina Duwe
July 25, 2014

EVANSVILLE--Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group is talking with other communities in Rock and Green counties about building an agricultural education and innovation complex, President Mike Larson said.

Larson declined to say what communities are being considered.

When SWAG started seeing its plans in Evansville might not happen, it started researching other options and meeting with other communities, Executive Director Nicole Reese said.

“Our biggest goal is to make this project happen somewhere,” she said.

“We'll continue doing all that work to find the best fit that maybe won't face the same obstacles as in Evansville. Obviously, the city has to have the financial ability to support this project," Reese said.

SWAG and Evansville city officials mutually agreed the project would not happen after a meeting Monday. SWAG requested more than $5.5 million in tax increment financing from the city, which city officials said the city could not afford.

Larson said SWAG members were cautiously optimistic before Monday's meeting but not shocked the deal fell through. He said Wednesday SWAG always is open to new ideas.

“We would gladly sit down with them again,” he said.

Since Tuesday's story in The Gazette, Larson said, SWAG has received phone calls from communities “eager to get to know our project a little better.”

“We're anxious to find that perfect partnership,” he said, but declined to say which communities they are talking with.

The fact that Evansville, population about 5,100, could not put up enough money does not preclude other similarly sized communities, Reese said.

“It really has nothing to do with the city's size,” she said.

“We probably are going to be dependent on municipal and county and state funding to help support the project along the way,” she said.

SWAG needs a partnering city to help open the door to grants, she said.

The not-for-profit organization recently started its fundraising campaign with a goal of $15 million for the first phase of its project.

Reese said last week the first phase would include:

-- An ag event area with three multipurpose buildings, a show ring and a campground.

-- A building that would include 20,000 square feet of exposition space and 9,000 to 12,000 square feet of Blackhawk Technical College training space.

SWAG also proposed hosting the Rock County 4-H Fair at the Evansville site, but Larson said the project never hinged on that aspect.

POTENTIAL SITES

City officials in Janesville and Beloit said they have not talked with SWAG but would welcome a discussion.

Janesville has available sites the size SWAG owns in Evansville, but the city would want to make sure the land is used to its highest and best use, said Al Hulick, economic development coordinator. That's not to say SWAG wouldn't fit, he said, but the city would need to balance it with other opportunities.

Beloit owns a lot of land in its industrial parks, City Manager Larry Arft said, and could offer a “pretty nice package” of incentives, depending how many jobs would be created and how much increment it would add to the TIF district.

Where the SWAG project lands will help determine Blackhawk Tech's involvement, though President Tom Eckert said the college likes the project.

“We see it as an opportunity to expand our ag program,” he said. “It's got to be the right location for us so that it is convenient for students. I'm trying to be really optimistic about this and hope for the best.”

He said he would prefer the site be in the college's district but is open to discussion “if someone comes up with a really cool idea” outside of Rock and Green counties, he said.

“We can't go out of state. If there were opportunities to locate in an area that's still convenient to our students and citizens, we'd certainly look at that,” Eckert said.

EVANSVILLE LAND

SWAG's board of directors will research options for the 217-acre site SWAG owns at the southeastern corner of Highway 14 and County M in Evansville. Selling the land is among the options.

In 2012, SWAG paid $2.17 million for the property.

The land continues to be farmed, Larson said.

SWAG members and area farmers are volunteering their time and equipment to plant the crops, he said. Earlier this month, Seneca Foods harvested peas, and soybeans now are growing.

Part of the property was on the market for commercial development, but Larson said it would be taken off the market.

City officials said Monday they received a “positive response” from SWAG when they asked if the property could be developed if the city had an interested business or individual.

The land is slated for industrial development in the city's plans.



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