No referendum planned for mixed-use library
City would not raise taxes to build facility
By Scott Bellile
The city of New London will not ask voters to decide whether a proposed mixed-use library gets built on the former Wolf River Lumber property in downtown New London.
“Basically the consensus is at this point in time, there’s no statutory requirement to have a referendum,” City Administrator Kent Hager told the New London Finance and Personnel Committee on Nov. 7.
Last month the New London City Council voted to proceed with planning for the mixed-use library and riverfront development project. The project is not yet greenlighted.
According to Mayor Gary Henke, a referendum was a possibility years ago when the city expected to have to borrow $6 million to build a new public library.
But since last year when the library shifted to a mixed-use development concept – which combines public and private uses – Henke said the city no longer intends to raise taxes, increase its operating budget or borrow multiple millions of dollars for the project.
“Generally you go to referendum asking if you can raise [residents’] taxes to pay for something. We’re not doing that,” Henke said one week earlier at an Oct. 30 meeting of the New London Economic Development Committee.
At the city council meeting last month, two firms that the city hired to assist with planning this project, Stadtmueller & Associates and SEH, proposed a $4 million price tag for the project – millions of dollars lower than estimated before the city switched gears.
New London Public Library Director Ann Hunt told the economic development committee Oct. 30 that several years ago before the mixed-use library concept came to fruition, the library proposed building a $10 million facility. She admitted that “absolutely turned people off.”
Now that the estimated cost has dropped to $4 million, Hunt said the community is more likely to support the proposed project and donate toward it.
Hunt added the library’s operating budget probably would not increase in a new building because hours and staffing would not change.
The New London Library and Museum Board recently hired a fundraising consulting firm. Madison-based company McDonald Schaefer will assist the library in acquiring donations.
A fundraising plan and timeline will be established soon, according to Randy Stadtmueller, president of Stadtmueller & Associates.
The library is expected to raise roughly $2.5 million toward the project, but that figure is a “placeholder number” that could change, Stadtmueller said.
Stadtmueller said the city would invest around $1 million in the mixed-use riverfront development project, toward the affordable housing portion.
The following facilities are proposed for the mixed-use development property:
• A public library building with 40 units of senior income-restricted housing. This would be built at 201 S. Pearl St., where the city-owned building familiarly known to residents as the former Curt’s Barbershop building – now home to Longevity Nutrition – currently stands.
• Two six-unit condominium buildings along West Wolf River Avenue.
• Thirty-two residential townhouses on the north half of the property toward the river.
• A 12,000-square foot commercial building. This would be built on the 209-211 S. Pearl St. property, which is occupied by St. John’s Christian Food Pantry and John’s Bar.
The entire project is contingent upon whether the city is awarded senior affordable housing tax credits through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.
This combination of state and federal credits would allow New London to develop “essentially a tax-free project,” Stadtmueller said.
The application process is competitive, Stadtmueller said. Of all the projects that apply for WHEDA senior residential tax credits in Wisconsin each year, approximately 25 percent earn them.
The city must apply by mid-December. Tax credits would be awarded next April.
Stadtmueller listed three actions that must occur before New London submits its application for the tax credits.
“We need to have confirmed zoning is appropriate for the project,” Stadtmueller said. “We need a control of the land through an offer to purchase and/or similar agreement. And we need the tax increment financing district not created, but approved by the council.”
Stadtmueller said the second item, control of the land, would be “very simple” because the city already owns the 6-acre property on Wolf River Avenue.
As far as the third item, the TIF district, that would have to be established by a joint review board. The board’s membership would be comprised of representatives of four local taxing jurisdictions: the city of New London, Waupaca County, the School District of New London and Fox Valley Technical College.
The four taxing jurisdictions would have to agree to reallocate shares of their property taxes within a defined geographical boundary in the city – the TIF district – toward development of the mixed-use library project for a set number of years.
Then the city council would approve establishing the TIF district.
Stadtmueller apologized to Longevity Nutrition co-owner Tracey Johnson, who attended the economic development meeting, because the city failed to notify her that a preliminary site plan for the library involves demolishing her building.
Longevity Nutrition began renting the building from the city last year with a lease-purchase option embedded in the contract.
“I don’t want you to feel like we were planning around you or something,” Stadtmueller told Johnson. “In general, relocation of tenants who have leases is required here under all circumstances where the public sector is adding, so that would have been a conversation [for us] to have with you about relocation in the future if there was a project that was approved by the council.”
The city plans to discuss the matter further with Longevity Nutrition.
The mixed-use development’s plan also calls for demolishing the St. John’s Christian Food Pantry and John’s Bar building to build the 12,000-square foot commercial building.
Second District Alderman Tom O’Connell asked Stadtmueller what happens to the overall development if the owner declines to sell the building.
“That part of the project needs to be fleshed out in detail and it really starts with a conversation with the owners,” Stadtmueller responded, but he added that the commercial building is an “elective part of the project” and the developers could adapt if they fail to acquire the property.