Our Views: Mining remains key obstacle to Watson's industrial park plan

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bill Watson comes across as confident, even arrogant.

Asked during a Tuesday meeting with The Gazette's editorial board whether he can overcome obstacles to building an Interstate interchange and massive Rock County industrial park, he seemed offended.

If he's involved, he replied, it will get done.

Strong words, indeed. But let's review the obstacles.

-- Watson must get transportation officials to OK an interchange at Interstate 90/39 and County M at a time when they're reluctant to add them and the deadline for changing designs looms. Two tries in recent years to get one there failed.

-- He must convince a municipality—he thinks Janesville would be best—to extend sewer and wastewater service to his industrial park.

-- His 1,500 acres, now farmland, are in the towns of Fulton and Milton and not adjacent to any city. He likely will need a reluctant landowner or two to agree before he can be annexed into the city of Milton—his leading option—or Janesville.

-- Finally, he must attract investors and find companies to fill his ambitious complex.

Sorry, Mr. Watson, but we don't share your optimism.

Yes, the interchange could be great for Milton. It could boost commerce and speed emergency responses at a time when the new Highway 26 bypass leaves the city feeling isolated. We urge transportation officials to approve the interchange, especially given that Watson says he would pay to build it.

Here, however, comes the first catch. Would Watson fund it without getting zoning changes that might allow gravel mining on his land? Mayor Brett Frazier says Milton doesn't want a mine in the city. Watson says that he is “absolutely not” planning to supply gravel to the Interstate expansion but that the gravel is an asset that would help attract investors to his industrial park.

Watson says he has been involved in developments spanning thousands of acres in Wisconsin and Florida, and some of them involved interchanges and bridges. Watson also admits he has “made mistakes” but learned from them.

Watson, who lives in California, says he understands neighbors' concerns. He says he has been in their shoes with his own properties in other states and would work with them. Watson admits that money is his top priority but that bringing much-needed jobs to the county where he grew up is another motivation.

We, too, would like to see the thousands of jobs Watson believes his development with rail access might bring. The county, however, already has many shovel-ready industrial sites. As Neil Johnson reported in last Sunday's Gazette, Watson's plans would double the available acreage. Watson suggests that those sites enhance the potential to cluster companies here, rather than compete with his development.

As tempting as it is to get on board with the plan and its potential to recharge the regional economy, we urge local officials to remain cautious. They should examine Watson's developments and “mistakes.” Tuesday's meeting raised questions about his credibility. Johnson's follow-up reports suggest Watson overstated the towns' support for gravel mining and falsely said a local company is giving away sand and gravel.

Watson is working with Janesville developer Jeff Helgesen, who has a track record of filling buildings left vacant by the recession and General Motors' pullout. Still, local development officials don't see any clamor for industrial sites. During our meeting, Watson twice suggested that companies doing business overseas would return when U.S. health care and tax laws change. Such changes are far from a sure thing.

Local leaders must weigh whether the potential for jobs and tax revenue overrides the possible harm to neighbors and risks that someday Watson will say, “Well, I tried, but now we must mine gravel to pay off the costs of building that interchange.”

As long as mining remains a possibility, it seems unlikely that Watson will get the support he needs. And that's just one of the big obstacles he must overcome.

Last updated: 7:12 am Saturday, February 22, 2014

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