Janesville84.2°

Edgerton facing uphill fight to fill vacant industrial space

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Stacy Vogel
November 27, 2009
— Edgerton always has been famous for tobacco, but long-time residents remember a bustling industrial sector, too.

Workers made shoes at the Nunn Bush Shoe factory, wagon and truck trailers at Highway Trailers, later Dorsey Trailers, and axles at Dana Corp., later the Caterpillar building.


The companies took thousands of jobs with them when they left in the second half of the 20th century.


And while Edgerton’s economy has moved on, the loss of the companies has left plenty of empty industrial space.


The departure of Green-Tek and Coextruded Plastic Technologies after a dispute with their landlord will make the Dorsey Trailer building vacant once again, adding more competition for industrial tenants in a region where industry is rapidly disappearing.


Local officials said property owners must work together with public and private groups to market industrial space in Edgerton and all of Rock County. But James Otterstein, Rock County economic development manager, warned that attracting industrial tenants to existing buildings is a tough task.


“The sad reality is that it’s very challenging to find a single or long-term tenant for large real estate offerings regardless of community size,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Gazette.


More than 600,000 square feet of vacant industrial space is concentrated in the former Nunn Bush Shoe and Dorsey Trailer buildings, owned by Jim Grafft, and the former Dana Corp./Caterpillar building, owned by Hendricks Development Group.


The city of Edgerton lists the spaces on its Web site and tries to help market them, Administrator Ramona Flanigan said. When prospective businesses call, city staff directs them to the building owners. The city then tries to see how it could help attract those businesses.


“It becomes kind of a three-way conversation between the city and the owner and the prospective buyer,” she said.


Regional economic development groups also play a role, Otterstein said. The Rock County Development Alliance, a public-private partnership involving local chambers of commerce and municipal governments, markets many available industrial spaces.


Prospective tenants often aren’t looking for a specific ZIP code so much as a building that meets their needs, Otterstein said. But sometimes it’s difficult for an older industrial building to meet the needs of today’s companies, he said.


Hendricks Development Group tried to convince Green-Tek to move to the former Dana Corp. building after its dispute with Grafft, but the building would have needed about $1 million in renovations to meet the company’s needs, said Paul Jacobson, Green-Tek co-owner.


The buildings compete not just with each other but also with space in the Edgerton Business Park on the north side of town. The park has landed a few new buildings since its creation a decade ago, most notably Save-A-Lot’s 300,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center.


Large Format Digital completed a 20,000-square-foot building in the park in 2008 with state-of-the-art energy efficiencies, something it probably couldn’t have found in an existing vacant building.


The existing buildings that will have the most success are those where owners and communities are proactive, Otterstein said. For example, Green-Tek might never have come to the Dorsey Trailer building if the owners hadn’t worked with Grafft and the city to rehabilitate the site, aided by a $900,000 brownfield grant.


In some cases, the best option for an industrial building will be demolition or adaptation for another use, Otterstein said.


Despite the difficulties, Grafft believes Edgerton offers some advantages, including a helpful city staff, that will assist him and other property owners attract new tenants, he said.


“Edgerton’s the most friendly place to do business,” he said. “It’s a great place. They’ve got a good workforce. It’s close enough to everybody.”



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