Forward NL reviewing riverbank options
By Scott Bellile
Beautifying the north bank of the Wolf River could be more complicated and costly than asking store owners to paint their deteriorating buildings, a citizen group is learning.
Local resident Jerry Finch told Forward New London at its July 20 meeting the realization came to him when he read strategic plans from decades past that centered around the same goal.
“It was noted in the report that, and I’ll quote, ‘The river facades of these buildings were never intended to be viewed as anything other than what they are: back alley access,” Finch read aloud from one strategic plan. “‘At the time they were built, the south side of the river was entirely industrial, so aesthetics were not a consideration.’”
His conclusion: “Cosmetic painting will not change that view.”
Cleaning up the north bank is a key goal for Forward New London. New London Mayor Gary Henke told the group that he’s had prospective developers tell him they wouldn’t buy the vacant city-owned lot, formerly home to Wolf River Lumber, located across the river on the south bank because the view of the north bank is ugly.
New ideas discussed
Finch shared some ideas that weren’t discussed at the May meeting when Forward New London merged with Connect Communities and the effort officially kicked off.
He said Forward New London should still strive to convince building owners to repaint their facades but additionally proposed concealing the facades with a 12- to 15-foot fence.
The suggested fence would be see-through, but it would be thick enough that the city could decorate it. Finch suggested making it attractive by adorning its poles with vines or LED lighting that could turn different colors for occasions like St. Patrick’s Day or patriotic holidays. The fence would push the facades into the background and make them less prominent, he said.
“I would say go for something that’s unique and different and not the cheapest thing on the block,” Finch said. “I understand the city has limitations, but if you’re going to use a TIF district or if you’re going to earmark from the development of that south side and it makes the south side developable, I don’t think the cost of a couple hundred thousand dollars is out of line. I mean, it sounds like a lot of money, but I know that there are many things that go on in the city cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and are done because they have to be done.”
Henke said an engineering firm had recommended a 6-foot-high wrought iron fence. It could cost about $150,000, or double that for a more decorative style, he said. His concern is delivery trucks drive through the alley and if one backs into the fence, it would be costly to repair.
Henke leaned toward instead centralizing garbage pickup for North Water Street businesses. He said reducing the number of dumpsters in the alley would be an improvement.
“I don’t know how other business owners would feel about that,” Henke said. The drawback is a longer walk for downtown businesspeople to take out the trash.
Suggestions to boost foot traffic along the water front, which were revived from old strategic plans, include a cantilevered elevated walkway along the north bank as well as a pedestrian bridge connecting the north and south banks. Currently people cross the river using the traffic bridges on Shawano or Pearl streets.
“A walking path on the north side, [or] being able to have a pedestrian bridge, I mean that’s expensive stuff, but it’s real cool,” said Dave Thiel, director of Waupaca County Economic Development. “The only way you can do that is to use the revenue generated on the south side. And you might be investing more beyond what tax revenue is even generated on that south side.”
Funding the project
Thiel’s suggestion, a TIF district, is one way to fund whatever ideas for improvements Forward New London ultimately comes up with.
In a memo to city staff dated July 26, a week after the Forward New London meeting, City Administrator Kent Hager provided “very generalized” numbers he and Thiel determined if the city put a 26-year TIF on a downtown riverfront property.
“I was kind of surprised at the amount of debt that could be issued based on the taxable value that would be placed on the vacant property,” Hager stated. He added a city needs to be careful with a TIF. It could get into trouble as one of its neighbors did by creating a TIF, spending the money and then not creating the taxable value as planned.
Hager suggested a referendum to determine if the issue matters enough to voters that they would be in support of a TIF district.
“I would love to say yes, let’s go out and spend $2 million here, whatever,” Henke said. “We can’t do it. The state won’t allow us to period. But through a TIF district, if we could raise that kind of money, we can do it. I think it’s something to look into.”
Forward New London has a broader goal of downtown revitalization that goes beyond the riverfront. The first change could be “New London” banners for some streetlamps along North Water Street as well as benches on the sidewalks. Henke said he will request around $2,000 from either the Economic Development Committee or the Parks and Recreation Committee for those additions.
The next meeting
Forward New London will hold its next meeting Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 6 p.m. at Water Street Vintage.
The group says it hasn’t received enough public input and thus asks residents attend.
Forward New London particularly seeks feedback from business owners along the north bank who are directly affected by the proposals that include centralized trash pickup and painting the buildings.