Watson plan would double industrial acreage in Rock County

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, February 15, 2014

MILTON—Landowner Bill Watson's plan to annex, rezone and develop 1,500 acres of farmland west of Milton would more than double the land available in Rock County for industrial development, a Gazette analysis reveals.

An inventory of municipal business and industrial parks in Rock County shows at least 1,000 acres earmarked for development. Some sites are considered “shovel ready.”

Janesville has between 350 and 380 acres of improved industrial park land. Beloit has more than 350 acres adjacent to Interstate highways in just one of its two major industrial parks.

Other communities—such as Milton, with its 115 acres of public and privately owned, shovel-ready land in the Crossroads Business Park near Highway 26 or Edgerton, with its 42 acres of city-owned, shovel-ready industrial park land on the city's north side—have sizable tracts ready for development.

That's not counting hundreds of acres around those established business parks that private landowners are considering for potential development, municipal administrators say.

And it doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of square feet in vacant industrial buildings, such as the former Alcoa facility in Beloit or the I-90 Industrial Center on Edgerton's west side, which has warehousing space.

Watson and his project partner, Janesville developer Jeffrey Helgesen, say their  Evermor development would span an area along the Interstate from County Y on Milton's west side, north along Interstate 90/39 to within a mile of County N, and it would reach northwest through the town of Fulton practically to the Rock River.

If overlaid on top of the city of Milton, Watson's development would be about one third of the city's area.

The sheer scope of the development, which Watson is considering petitioning to annex into the city of Milton, has drawn opposition from town of Fulton and Milton residents who say the plan would pull huge chunks of land out of agricultural use.

Some critics also say it's difficult to understand how one developer could market that much acreage with the industrial park land already available in the county.

Tom Trepasso, a rural Edgerton resident who lives next to Watson's proposed development area, has been involved in corporate development for decades. At a recent public listening session at Milton City Hall, Trepasso said he counted about 600 acres of shovel-ready industrial sites across the county.  

“A lot of these municipalities will give that land away (through incentives),” Trepasso said.    

Indeed, the cities of Beloit, Edgerton and Milton combined already have nearly 400 acres of shovel-ready and improved industrial park land available, some within tax increment finance districts or enterprise zones, officials in those communities say.

It's not clear how much land Watson would initially develop, but it's almost all his land, and he claims development and site infrastructure there would be fueled by private investment, not by municipal development incentives.  

That's where his project differs from many local industrial parks, which are either developed with a blend of public and private land or almost exclusively municipally controlled.

Two of Watson's big selling points for his project are the potential for direct railroad access and interchange access to I-90/39, which the state plans to begin expanding to six lanes in 2016. The development would be located next to an interchange at I-90/39 off County M—access some local industrial parks don't have—if Watson can gain state approval of the interchange. 

The land, though it borders residential areas, is largely undeveloped and is not split up in parcels that might not fit larger developments.

Watson has told town of Milton and Fulton officials that if his project gets an Interstate interchange, annexation and the proper industrial zoning, all of which he seems to be pursuing simultaneously, it could draw two huge initial developments: one facility that could total 750,000 square feet and another of about 300,000 square feet.

He's hinted that those industries could include warehousing or intermodal freight transport.

Helgesen's Janesville firm, Helgesen Development Corp., has begun advertising Watson's parcels along I-39/90 for pre-construction bidding in two phases: “Evermor Development I” and “Evermor Development II.”

The advertisement on Helgesen Corp.'s website doesn't map out the locations or boundaries of the two parcels or give timelines, but it shows the combined acreage of both phases would be 1,000 acres.

The first phase would include 600 acres, enough space for 31 buildings ranging from 75,000 square feet to 750,000 square feet, according to the advertisement. The advertisement claims the second phase would be 400 acres with enough room to fit 11 buildings ranging from 25,000 square feet to 500,000 square feet.

Regardless of who is funding it, that type of large-scale industrial development has been unheard of in Rock County since the Great Recession hit in 2008, municipal officials say.

Beloit City Manager Larry Arft said municipal economic development officials across the county get automatic alerts from site development scouts whenever they seek requests for proposals on parcels in established, improved business parks such as Beloit's city-owned Gateway Industrial Park, which has at least 220 acres of shovel-ready parcels.

Since the recession, requests from large-scale industrial developers have been nearly nil, he said.   

“Buildings aren't being built today that require a 50-acre site,” Arft said, explaining that most inquiries he gets now are for smaller-scale companies such as food-handling and technology industries.

Likewise, town of Beloit Administrator Brian Wilson said, existing business parks now are largely in the game of handling small expansions for existing local companies. It's a continuing slow climb for industrial parks he indicated were planned to roll out over the course of decades.

Arft said he realizes private developers such as Watson may be able to play their cards closer to the vest than municipalities. Yet if there were immediately viable large-scale industrial projects on the horizon, Arft believes, area municipalities would be catching wind of them, too.

“With us, the streets are here, the improvements, the utilities are here. Our sites have been platted. We're ready to go. But we've not seen a significant amount of increase in the industrial side,” Arft said. “Where are these companies that would use that type of space?”

Evansville City Administrator Dan Wietecha said, in his view, area economic developers haven't gotten defensive or even circumspect over talk of Watson's proposal near Milton.

Wietecha said the economy shows some signs of a rebound, and meanwhile, private landowners in Evansville are quietly talking about land deals that could ready 100 more acres for development there.

Still, 1,500 acres are being talked about near Milton. And that's close by, isn't it?

“Hey,” Wietecha said, “development takes time. Just because somebody opens their mouth and makes some headlines, it doesn't mean it's news.”

He compared development plans, regardless of their initial scope, to a carnival game—albeit one that's complex and includes many external variables, such as  public input, government oversight and lengthy planning.

“It's kind of like a bumper car trying to get from one side of the course to the other,” he said. “You're going to get banged around and bumped around. You might get to the other side but maybe not along the route you first expected.”

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