Milton officials, businesses preparing for Highway 26 bypass
It was a steady, muffled sound like the thrum of waves—20,000 cars and trucks a day, state officials estimate.
But not for much longer.
A quieter reality is settling in Milton: The highway that funnels traffic past the city's tidy downtown soon will be moving about a mile east.
Work on the Milton Highway 26 bypass is slated to start in April 2012, according to Wisconsin Department of Transportation project manager Mark Vesperman.
The DOT plans to give the city an update on plans for the project at a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 12, but Vesperman said the bypass will be completed and tied into improved north and south sections of Highway 26 by November 2013.
From a chair in his renovated 1850s wheat warehouse-turned-winery on the edge of the city's east side commercial district, Northleaf Winery owner John Nordlof glanced through the front doors toward Highway 26.
He said he's conflicted about what the future bypass will mean.
"The good news is that all of the noisy traffic will be gone. But the bad news is that all of the noisy traffic will be gone," Nordlof said.
Planned for years, the bypass is part of a 50-mile Highway 26 expansion project that will stretch north from Janesville to Highway 60 at Watertown. It's intended to divert traffic from local downtowns, lessening accidents and eliminating slowdowns and most stops for truck and through traffic.
North of Milton, work to widen Highway 26 to four lanes to Fort Atkinson is slated to begin in 2012 and finish in 2014.
Vesperman estimates the Milton bypass will reroute about 16,000 vehicles a day.
The end result: Many potential customers in the form of highway traffic will no longer funnel through the eastern gut of Milton. It's a looming dilemma for almost anyone with a stake in a business on the city's east side.
In recent months, city planners and local focus groups composed of everyone from local chamber of commerce members to concerned citizens have worked on a big, complex set of plans: How to prepare Milton for the eventual migration of Highway 26.
The sky's not falling
"I haven't heard alarm from people," Milton City Administrator Schuetz said. "What I've heard is, ‘What can we do?' People aren't waiting to see what happens. They're working to make people want to come here and not get on the bypass."
One of the city's major plans is a Streetscape and open space upgrade of the Goodrich Park area. The park sits between the current Highway 26 and Parkview Drive and is split into three portions that house sports fields, an elementary school and a community center.
With highway traffic soon to evaporate, planners envision converting the park into a pedestrian and bike-friendly mall that would function as a centerpiece in redevelopment of the city's east side downtown.
Plans for the conversion include parking and street realignments and added amenities and landscaping in the park. The work could cost as much as $4.2 million and would be done in phases using grants and money collected from a Tax Increment District, officials have said.
Schuetz said the project likely would start with work on the park's north end, which houses a city community center that the city plans to revamp, and sits directly west of one of the city's main commercial lynchpins—the historic Milton House.
A city committee could pitch that portion of the Goodrich Park project for council approval as early as February, Schuetz says.
Making a plan
Kathy Arndt, who operates Arndt's Convenience store on Parkview Drive a block west of Highway 26, says she's not worried about the bypass. Her gas station, which is at the southwest corner of Goodrich Park, sees mostly local customers.
Yet Arndt says she likes the city's plan to reconfigure the streets and parks at Goodrich Park. She said a town square atmosphere could bring her station more foot traffic.
The plan also encourages continued development of emerging businesses such as Northleaf Winery, which serve niche markets.
The Nordlofs hope the plan works. They've poured their hopes and a small fortune—about $500,000—into turning their old warehouse into a trendy craft wine shop where the Nordlofs' own brand, Northleaf, is vinted, bottled and sold.
In just a few years, Northleaf Winery has built a customer base that blends local buyers with customers who are passing through on Highway 26.
Yet in the summer months, 85 percent of their customers are tourists and vacationers.
"They're on the way to somewhere else," Nordlof's wife and Northleaf Winery co-owner Gail Nordlof says with a reluctant smile.
With the eventual bypass diverting traffic, there's no guarantee those customers will detour into Milton for just a bottle of wine.
Milton business owner Tami Dosch said she believes that once the Highway 26 bypass is complete, it will be a challenge for businesses on the city's east side to draw traffic into the city's interior. Still, she's optimistic.
"I'd be more concerned if the businesses hadn't had a few years to establish a customer base," says Dosch, referring to Northleaf Winery and a few other upstart businesses on the city's east side.
Dosch owns and operates the Red Rooster, a specialty shop in a converted feed mill near Milton's west side commercial district. Her store is along the city's other main thoroughfare, Highway 59. Dosch says that insulates her from the impact of the Highway 26 bypass.
Still, she said businesses on the city's east and west sides rely on each other for a flow of commerce and for word-of-mouth customer referrals, and some have linked their businesses through blocks of television advertising.
Dosch said she hopes the city works with local businesses on highway signs and other marketing strategies to draw potential customers off the future bypass and into Milton.
"Anything that helps people learn that, hey, there's more than one place that I can go and shop in Milton, that's a positive thing," she said.