For more than a decade, Dan Rinehart has been a local dynamo when it comes to building apartments and townhouses in Edgerton.

The real estate developer relocated his taxidermy business to Edgerton around 2001. Then he started changing the look and feel of the city’s downtown.

His most ambitious move was a multi-stage conversion of three vacant tobacco warehouses into mid-to-upscale apartments. He also opened a townhouse on Main Street last year and is currently building another apartment complex on Lawton Street.

Those five projects have created 82 new residential units and have earned about $1.7 million in city incentives. They fit squarely with Edgerton’s goal to get more people living downtown, which civic leaders believe will keep local businesses healthy.

So it was unusual when the council denied Rinehart’s $430,000 request last month for an eight-unit apartment project on Henry Street. Rinehart did not counter with another offer, and the idea died, City Administrator Ramona Flanigan said.

Flanigan couldn’t recall another time when a proposed downtown development fell through because the city council rejected an incentive request.

Developers and council members have certainly negotiated the terms of past incentives. Since 2003, Edgerton has awarded 14 of those within the borders of a downtown tax increment financing district, which was created to draw development downtown, Flanigan said.

But the demise of Rinehart’s project, which would have cost $1.3 million total, does not mean the city has become more selective. Instead, Edgerton must keep building on recent economic success downtown, she said.

“I don’t think this project tells us that (we’re being more selective),” Flanigan said. “I think this project stands on its own merits. The cost-benefit analysis, the council felt the incentive was too much for what we were getting out of it. I don’t think this is a bellwether of, ‘Oh, we’re changing direction.’”

Flanigan called increasing downtown housing a “proven strategy” for a healthy local economy. The city included that philosophy in its 2000 downtown master plan.

Edgerton’s list of city-incentivized projects reflects that thinking. Ten of the 14 developments include the creation of at least one new residential unit, according to information provided by the city.

The projects vary in size and scope.

Swifthaven, an assisted living center on Henry Street, added 50 units for senior citizens and opened in 2005. The city provided $700,000 to Swifthaven’s developers to renovate a historic building and construct an additional facility.

Flanigan said the project fulfilled a need for transitional senior living.

It was Edgerton’s second-most lucrative incentive behind $978,000 in city dollars for Fulton Square, which opened in 2009. Located on West Fulton Street in the heart of downtown, the mixed-use building includes 17,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and 26 condominium units above.

Fulton Square was an example of Edgerton trying to modernize its downtown while remaining true to the area’s history, Flanigan said. The building includes underground parking and additional surface parking tucked behind, and its architecture blends neatly with older facades across the street.

Providing parking was important for Fulton Square because it made visiting downtown more convenient for surrounding-area residents, she said.

Retail’s role

Old, historic downtowns such as Edgerton’s were built long before cars became common. Tightly packed storefronts along several blocks made the most sense in that era.

While the post-World War II retail economy led to a boom of strip malls with sprawling parking lots, that model is also becoming obsolete as consumers increasingly shop online.

Figuring out how to spark downtown vibrancy and fill vacant spaces as the retail economy changes is a question Flanigan grapples with frequently.

“Do we build in retail at this point?” she said. “That’s a question a lot of people are going to wrestle with because if you look at 10 years ago, well, yeah, of course. It’s a highway frontage; you build retail.

“But I don’t know what the answer is now. We continue to assess the market, talk with developers, because do you need more retail square footage when (people) shop online?”

Still, getting more people living downtown remains the prevailing wisdom, no matter what retail’s future is.

Edgerton Chamber of Commerce President Jay Grafft said there’s clearly more foot traffic downtown compared to years ago. That’s a good sign, he said.

“I think having increased density and foot traffic downtown would benefit all businesses because people are more inclined to walk someplace that takes them a minute or two than drive somewhere that takes them 10 minutes,” Grafft said.

He and Flanigan noted that while brick-and-mortar retail could wilt in the future, the downtown has shifted to more service-based businesses such as restaurants and tax preparation companies.

People who come downtown to do their taxes might notice a quirky shop worth revisiting another time, Grafft said.

Rinehart said downtown business owners have told him the new apartments have helped their revenues.

Untapped opportunity

Rinehart has aggressively pursued residential projects because he’s seen strong demand for his mid-to-upscale apartments, especially among people who work in Madison. Edgerton offers a quieter, less-expensive alternative than the state capital, he said.

Edgerton is no longer a center for manufacturing jobs like it once was. Rinehart said its transition to a bedroom community for Madison and Janesville is just a change rather than a negative.

But the city still has its share of empty storefronts. There are “no silver bullets” when it comes to filling those, Flanigan said.

The city tries to be proactive about prepping vacant land, such as finishing an environmental study of a 4-acre parcel on Lawton Street. It also has poured money into a façade reinvestment program to beautify the downtown, she said.

Flanigan suggested business owners could consider collaborating to form a business improvement district, as Janesville has done. This move would raise taxes on those businesses, but it could incentivize additional future developments, she said.

Rinehart sees remaining storefront vacancies as a positive and an indicator Edgerton has unfulfilled potential.

“When you see vacant storefronts, that never looks good,” he said. “However, if you believe you tapped into something that makes the community grow, that tells you … there’s room to support more growth in the community.

“Edgerton has the capacity to bring in new storefront businesses. The square footage is there for businesses to eventually move in to meet the demand of the new residents.”

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