Milton trying to help its two downtowns find their feet

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Neil Johnson
Friday, February 21, 2014

MILTON—Milton officials hope a think tank of local business owners can give the city direction as commerce continues to scuffle amid a shift in traffic patterns brought on by the new Highway 26 bypass.

The city's new Downtown Development Action Committee, an advisory panel of business owners from the Parkview Drive business district, the city's eastside downtown, and Merchant Row, the city's westside downtown, met for the first time Friday morning at City Hall.

The meeting was meant as a briefing by City Administrator Jerry Schuetz to forge a "unified vision" for development of the two downtown districts, which are a mile apart—and to announce a forthcoming consultant's study to revitalize the Merchant Row business district.

But what bubbled to the surface Friday was a unified feeling among about 20 businesses owners from both downtowns: pent-up anxiety over the impacts of the Highway 26 bypass.

Some business owners wanted to know why the city hasn't begun to install signs to direct motorists into the city's two downtowns, both areas which now get skirted by the 14,000 vehicles that take the bypass around the city every day, officials estimate.

While some local streets have seen more traffic, some business owners on Janesville Street said their customer base has shrunk 20 percent since the bypass opened last fall.

One of the main issues Milton is dealing with is a lack of directional signs to show people how to get off the bypass and into and around town. The city's placement of directional signs seems to be hung up while the city council grapples over a new city logo.

The council this month scrapped plans for a logo that would feature either a rendering of the city's Crossroads Business Park or one of Main Hall, a historic building on the campus of the former Milton College.

The city's spent more than $6,000 on logo plans in the last 18 months, but council members decided earlier this month they didn't like the logos or their companion slogan: “A community since 1838.”

The council is now waiting on new designs, which could come next month, Schuetz said.

Some business stakeholders, including Milton House Museum director Cori Olson, on Friday suggested the city could move forward with directional signs that don't include a city logo if that would speed up help to visitors trying to find their way into and around Milton.

Olson pointed out that Fort Atkinson put in a set of directional signs years in advance of the completion of its stretch of the Highway 26 bypass. She said Fort's signs don't have a logo, but are of uniform size and design.

“Even people getting off at the (Highway 59) roundabouts, there's nothing that even says “high school this way,” Olson said. “That is something we seriously need.”

Other business owners pressed the city on its plans for streets that are getting more vehicles from local traffic avoiding the bypass, including the intersection of John Paul Road and Madison Avenue.

Schuetz said city staff is meeting with the state Department of Transportation about a four-way stop at John Paul Road and Madison Avenue. He said the intersection doesn't fit DOT standards for a stoplight, which would cost more than $250,000. 

Business owner Laura Sykora still is pushing for a bypass exit that would give direct access to Janesville Street and the city's east side district. Schuetz told her that's unlikely to ever happen. 

The city asked the DOT two years ago to add such an interchange, but the DOT shot down the request. DOT officials at the time said the bypass plans were already complete, federal funding was sewn up and any extra interchanges at the city's south end would be too close to other exits.

Schuetz told people at the meeting Friday that he shares their frustration with the DOT.

He said the Crossroads Business Park, which is along the Highway 59/Highway 26 bypass, has one potential development that's being hampered because the DOT is putting its foot down over a traffic “access control issue.”

Schuetz did not give further details, but he said he's told one DOT supervisor, “The very promises you made for development, you're impeding them.”

Though traffic, directional and access discussions dominated Friday's meeting, Schuetz told business owners the new Downtown Development Action Committee's purpose is to get suggestions from local business owners on any plans or ideas to improve the city's two downtowns.

The committee meetings, which are open to owners of all the city's 200 businesses, would break business owners in two groups, one which would discuss development ideas in Merchant Row; the other would discuss plans in the Parkview Drive district. Both groups would then combine at meetings to discuss the ideas together. 

The Downtown Development committee will meet once a month. That will allow the city council to chew on the group's recommendations at both of its two monthly meetings, Schuetz said.

The committee is advisory, which means the council isn't obligated to act on its recommendations.

Mike Fredrick, who owns Fredrick's Supper Club on Merchant Row, didn't make the meeting Friday, but he gave The Gazette a suggestion for what's become a main crossroad in Milton now that the bypass is complete.

At the “T” intersection of the realigned North Harmony Town Hall Road and East Milton-Harmony Townline Road, a green DOT sign points drivers with a right arrow to Parkview Drive, which leads to Milton's eastside downtown.

Fredrick said the city could work on a sign with arrows that point drivers one of two ways on Townline Road: right, to the eastside downtown, or left, toward John Paul Road and Merchant Row.

“There are two downtowns where you can go in Milton, not just one,” he said.

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