Our Views: Officials wise to go cautiously on Watson industrial development in Rock County

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

So many questions, so little time. That's the dilemma facing the towns of Milton and Fulton, as well as the city of Milton.

Bill Watson is in a hurry. His mission: to develop up to 1,200 acres of farmland, most of which he owns, in the two towns. His proposal depends on the state agreeing to a new interchange at County M and Interstate 90/39. Interstate expansion begins next year, and Watson so wants his interchange that he says he would pay to build it.

Watson says the acreage could hold an industrial park of up to 5 million square feet and employ thousands. He would like to break ground this spring and thinks annexing the land into the city of Milton could expedite rezoning and development. He plans to petition for annexation but has yet to do so.

Such a massive development with the potential for so many jobs would be a tremendous boon to Rock County, which is still struggling five years after automotive jobs vanished. Watson says it could balloon the property tax base as much as $250 million.

The project, however, raises many questions.

First and foremost, does the city have the power to annex the land? If it does, is that fair to the towns? Can the three governments forge an agreement to share the development's tax windfall?

Can Watson convince state officials of the viability of the interchange quickly enough that it doesn't hold up the expansion and suits his needs and, apparently, those of some unnamed company? Watson has said he would pay for an interchange justification report and rail extensions, too. But will local taxpayers wind up absorbing some hefty infrastructure expenses? Watson dropped cash into town coffers this week to help pay for rezoning and land-use explorations, but he also suggested that if it could fast-track approval, the state could do the justification study itself. A transportation official told The Gazette that's unlikely.

Can Watson convince preservationists of the need to turn farmland into industrial parks when town Smart Growth plans were designed to protect certain tracts? Besides, shovel-ready industrial sites around the county await developers. Janesville's vacant General Motors plant has rail and Interstate access spurs and someday will be available for redevelopment, as well.

Who is Watson, and what's motivating him? We know he's a Milton-area native and a rich farmer who lives in California and owns Mulder Dairy Farms in Rock County. He has resisted repeated Gazette requests to sit down for a profile interview.

Some residents are suspicious given that Watson has been involved in gravel proposals and operations around the county. Rumors include everything from a gravel pit to a slaughterhouse on the land. Watson says the rumors aren't true. He says that he would start with two industrial complexes totaling more than 1 million square feet and that his park could entice companies involved in dairy equipment manufacturing, freight transport, warehousing and distribution. He offers no specifics. He admits the land holds much sand and gravel but says it's more valuable for industrial development and “it's not prudent to mine it at this particular point in time.”

Is his optimism based on something concrete or speculation? If plans don't pan out, does rezoning open the door to mining at some point?

We're not trying to squash what could be an exciting development if it promises thousands of family-supporting jobs. Far from it. Instead, with so many questions unanswered and Watson in a rush, local officials are right to be a bit skeptical and cautious. They must keep the best interests of their communities in the forefront.

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