EVANSVILLE — A private group hopes to build a regional agricultural events and education center in Evansville that also could host the Rock County 4-H Fair and Blackhawk Technical College agriculture courses.
Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group last year paid $2.17 million for 217 acres at the southeastern corner of Highway 14 and County M on Evansville's east side.
If SWAG can raise at least $25 million, it plans to build an agricultural education and innovation complex. It would focus on educating people about and engaging them in agriculture and promoting and protecting the industry.
"The ag industry has relied on people who don't understand the ag industry to tell the story for years and years and years," said Kevin Klahn, vice president of the group's board. "It's time for us to be proactive and tell our story … in a positive way and help people understand."
Board members of the group met with The Gazette to share their vision.
About 40 acres would be used for commercial development, and 80 to 100 acres would be dedicated to agriculture activities. The rest would remain working farmland for test plots and future growth.
Commercial development could include a retail store, restaurants or a hotel.
"It's likely to be businesses that complement the project, but we don't know specifically," said board member John Morning, an Evansville developer with a history in agriculture.
SWAG sees potential to showcase Wisconsin products or feature menus of Wisconsin food.
The commercial development could generate more than 300 jobs, said Kennan Wood, of Wood Communications Group, which was hired by the agriculture group to help with the project. Commercial developments could increase the city's tax base by $30 million to $35 million, he said.
That doesn't take into account the regional effect of visitors spending money during their trips, sales tax and hotel taxes, Morning said.
The project hinges on a fundraising feasibility study, measuring whether enough money could be raised to move ahead. The study is expected to be done in spring, and if everything moves along, groundbreaking could be sometime in 2014. The hope is to get financial help from agribusinesses and agriculture associations across the state.
The complex would include:
-- A 40,000-square-foot agriculture discovery center providing a high-tech, hands-on, interactive learning experience. It would include all aspects of agriculture in Wisconsin and showcase industry advancements and innovations. The center would operate year-round and charge an entrance fee.
Wood said the group conservatively estimates 150,000 visitors in the first year, increasing to 216,000 by the third year.
"We think that that's very doable given the region we're in," Wood said.
The group would market aggressively to schools within a 100-mile radius, and Wisconsin has nothing like it, Wood said.
"We think it's really important that ag steps up and tells its story, gets kids excited about it and helps the next generation of ag leaders get engaged," he said.
They envision a Chicago family headed to Wisconsin Dells or north for skiing but stopping at the complex to explore for a few hours, said Klahn, who runs Klondike Farms, a cash grain and custom farming operation in Brooklyn.
-- A 20,000-square-foot agriculture education campus of classrooms and labs for grades K-12 and youth organizations. Blackhawk Tech has committed to an additional 9,000 square feet for its programs.
Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group believes there's a strong need for agriculture education facilities, Wood said, which was proven in talks with Blackhawk Tech, the Evansville School District, a charter school and others.
Technology could be used to deliver curriculum and distance learning to the rest of the state and the Midwest, he said.
Local businesses have said they need corporate training facilities, Wood said, "so we think we could build in that type of capacity in this particular area and help those businesses train current workers, but also new workers."
-- An agriculture expo area, including a 45,000-square-foot exhibition hall and possibly, in phases, a grandstand, amphitheater/stage, dedicated equestrian facility, camping, midway area, livestock barns, outdoor demonstration and show areas and demonstration gardens. The facilities would be a year-round resource for youth organizations in the Midwest and help develop the next generation of agricultural leaders, Wood said.
The group's feasibility study highlights a need for equestrian facilities.
"We think that's a need we can fill easily that fits into our mission," Wood said.
The complex wouldn't include an operating farm, but it could include a birthing barn.
The group has talked with local leaders about moving the Rock County 4-H Fair to the complex, but group members said their plans don't hinge on the fair moving to Evansville.
"This is about us providing an opportunity," Wood said. "It's up to them whether or not they want to move."
The complex has to be self-supporting. The discovery center would provide daily revenue, and the group hopes the expo area would host 200 to 300 events annually, Wood said.
"I think it would be huge if they can pull this off," UW-Extension Agent Jim Stute said.
Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group sees the dwindling public support for agricultural education, he said. That includes UW-Extension and FFA programs, he said.
"If they had a place where they could host this kind of work—basically youth education in agriculture—and have private support for it, they feel they can enhance educational opportunities for the youth," he said.
Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group started three years ago to help ensure the future of agriculture as a Wisconsin economic engine and cultural touchstone. It is a not-for-profit organization.
The group has completed a feasibility study with Vierbicher Associates and a business plan with Baker Tilly. It bought the land, developed alliances with area groups and now is in the middle of a fundraising feasibility study.
The project's success depends on a strong vision, year-round operations and the ability to raise at least $25 million up front, board members said.
The group has three target audiences:
-- Young leaders: Funding for youth programs is dropping, as is the number of ag activities, despite rising 4-H memberships. Group members said that's an area they need to hit head-on.
-- Workers: They see an agriculture skills gap increasing over the next five to 10 years, and they want to help provide the agriculture education that will be critical for the ag workforce of the future.
-- General public: Less than 10 percent of Wisconsin residents are directly connected to agriculture. That number is high compared to the 2 percent across the country.
"We view that as a challenge as we go forward in trying to produce more food with less resources," Wood said.
Klahn said there's nothing in the project for board members other than satisfaction.
"I envision driving by this in 10 years and being proud of myself for being involved in the project," he said. "There's no financial gain or benefit to be had. It's the opposite."
No decisions have been made, but the fair board has been talking with Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group about moving the Rock County 4-H Fair to the Evansville center if the project moves ahead, fair board president Rob McConnell said.
"It looks like an opportunity for us," he said.
The county owns the fairgrounds in Janesville, and the private Rock County Fair Association runs the fair.
The agriculture group has given updates on its project to the Rock County Board Agriculture and Extension Education Committee, which oversees the fairgrounds. Committee member Al Sweeney said the presentation was "quite impressive," but it has a lot of hurdles to jump.
"We certainly can't predict anything right now. There's a big mountain to climb for the SWAG group," he said referring to fundraising.
The fair board is interested in the Evansville site, so if the fair moved, the county would have to decide what to do with the fairgrounds. That topic has not yet been discussed, Stute said.
The fairgrounds property is zoned residential. If the fair moved, it would be "highly unlikely" that it would ever return because the city likely wouldn't allow it, Sweeney said.
While the fair is a major user of the grounds, it is "a hard-working venue" for everything from educational programs, a curling club, weddings, gun shows, auctions and car shows, Stute said.
The Evansville site would be attractive to the fair board because it would be much larger than the cramped, 18-acre site in Janesville, he said. The location of the fair always has been contentious, he said, noting people say it's difficult to get to the fairgrounds and it's a countywide fair, not the Janesville fair.
"Evansville's not that much farther away," he said.
The project's location is especially appealing to Blackhawk Technical College, President Tom Eckert said.
"The thing we like most about the whole center and concept is that its location is ideally suited for us between Rock and Green counties," he said.
The college could move its one-year agribusiness program and its farm business and production management program, which is a special program for working farmers, from its Monroe campus to Evansville, he said. Those programs serve 30 to 35 students.
BTC would provide an instructor and classroom and office space, he said.
"We've committed to the fact that if they are successful in raising the money needed to put this center together, that we would certainly like to be a part of it," he said.
With local and state board approvals, BTC could spend up to $1.5 million for a 9,000-square-foot facility, he said. BTC can borrow up to $1.5 million for a project without going to referendum.
Eckert said he didn't want to get too speculative, but he said BTC's presence could grow if everything comes together. BTC would consider moving its horticultural and turf industries program to the Evansville center, he said. There's also the possibility of adding new programming.
He noted a need for "precision agriculture—the use of high-level technology in agriculture."
Area farmers already use GPS-guided equipment to maximize resources such as fertilizers, he said.
"It's here now, and we see that as becoming increasingly more complex and efficient," he said.
People could learn how to drive tractors with advanced technology in the fields next to classrooms, he said.
But without funding for the whole complex, it won't happen, Morning said.
So far, the group is encouraged. Nobody they've talked with has said the complex would be a bad idea, Klahn said.
"Everybody's been extremely supportive," he said. "It's just that question mark of whether we'll have enough funds for it."