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There’s a curve in the road where Fond du Lac Avenue meets Country Aire Drive on the east side of Germantown. When the weather is right, you can see downtown Milwaukee as you head south. At that point, you are less than two miles from being in the city, but making out Milwaukee’s skyline on the horizon it feels like a lot more than 15 miles to the heart of the Marquette Interchange.
For many, proximity to Milwaukee and the commercial amenities of the entire metro area are among the draws of living in Washington County. It can be just a 20- or 30-minute drive to restaurants in Wauwatosa or Brookfield and just a little longer to get downtown for a Milwaukee Bucks game.
On the other hand, even though much of the county’s population lives in suburban-style subdivisions, it takes just a few minutes to reach a rural country road, a hiking trail or a view of the Kettle Moraine’s colors in fall.
In the 1990s, Washington County’s population boomed, growing more than 23%, and the growth continued into the 2000s, increasing another 12%. It has since slowed, but with a 3.1% increase from 2010 to 2019, it is still growing faster than Wisconsin as a whole.
Washington County has seen a different kind of increased development activity at the edge of Germantown in recent years. Anchored by a Briggs & Stratton distribution center, the area along Holy Hill Road, just east of the interstate, is now home to several new industrial buildings and companies.
Bringing sewer and water to the area to serve those projects opens the possibility of more development, not just in Germantown but also in neighboring Richfield where a roughly 300-acre area along the interstate is seen to have great potential.
“I believe we’re poised for some very significant economic growth during the next decade or two and because of that I believe strongly that we need to have a plan for how we’re going to address that growth,” said Josh Schoemann, who was elected as the first Washington County executive in April.
The potential for circumstances similar to the Holy Hill interchange exists at other locations around the county. If there is access to infrastructure, there is plenty of open space – around 45% of the county is farmland – and with an interstate and a U.S. highway running through it, Washington County has easy access to Milwaukee, Chicago, Madison and Green Bay.
“In the next 20 years between here and Lomira, I think you’re going to see some real economic development,” said Jim Healy, village administrator in Richfield.
The challenge will be in finding the right balance. Mixing new development with the county’s history of agriculture. Blending the rural character of many areas with the housing and population needed to support new businesses. Growing while not losing what has attracted people to the area in the first place.
“With economic development, either you manage it or it manages you,” Schoemann said. “Eventually that farmer gets squeezed out and gets the right number from developer ‘X’ and is going to sell. It’s pretty difficult not to allow that to happen.”
Lynn Grgich, executive director of the Germantown Area Chamber of Commerce, said she understands the perspective of those living in the vicinity of new development who may have had a vision of open land and farm fields but added that for the village the development potential was probably always in the back of people’s minds.
“Those farmers, they aren’t able to make a go of their farms as they did in years past, so for them ... all of this is kind of coming together,” she said. “The want is out there for commercial sites, they have the land that these site directors might be looking for, and the timing in their lives might be such that, for them, it’s an opportunity.”
Scott Henke, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce, said across the county if land is best suited to be agriculture then leaders should think of it as its own business park.
“We have to treat it like it is a business, because it is a business, and not keep thinking of it as this mom and pop, ‘Oh, that’s so and so’s farm,’” Henke said. “No, it’s really so and so’s business, and if they decide that they want to tear that business down as an individual and sell it to a developer that is going to put homes or industrial land on it, well that’s their choice, but we as a community have to help that business succeed before they come to that point.”
Christian Tscheschlok, executive director of Economic Development Washington County (EDWC), the county’s economic development organization, said the “super-heated” growth in Kenosha County — and, more recently, Racine County — has created a situation in which developers and companies are now looking to other areas, helping fuel interest in Washington County.
“With all the development they’ve had there, it’s become very saturated for a lot of the manufacturing-type positions, and workforce availability is a challenge,” Tscheschlok said.
He added that Waukesha County has limited space available for new developments and Ozaukee County doesn’t have the same access to workforce. Meanwhile, Washington County has the right mix of available land and ability to draw from multiple labor pools, Tscheschlok said.
“That’s one of the reasons we’ve really popped on the radar of a lot of business opportunity and growth projects,” he said.
Within manufacturing, Washington County wages have increased 1.4% since 2015, while in Kenosha County manufacturing wages are up 3.3%. Across all private sector jobs, Washington has slightly higher wage growth than Kenosha County – 8.6% versus 8.5%. Washington County is also second in southeastern Wisconsin, only behind Kenosha County, in private sector job growth rate since 2015.
Jim Paetsch, vice president of corporate relocation, attraction and expansion at Milwaukee 7, said his regional economic development organization has seen an uptick in interest from companies wanting to look at sites in Washington County.
“They like the idea of maybe competing a little bit less for labor,” Paetsch said. “The other thing that the county is known for is a loyal workforce, a highly-skilled, dedicated workforce. There are just fewer of them than a lot of companies would want.”
He said planning for the future is important, but once a plan is in place, communities need to be in the competition for projects.
“It’s a low-batting-average business,” Paetsch said of economic development.
He said for every ribbon cutting, there might be 10 projects a community lost out on, but being in the competition allows communities to learn what is important to companies and how companies view a community.
“We all tell ourselves certain things we think are assets,” Paetsch said, noting the market may not agree or could see something of value a community is not emphasizing.
To the outside world, it might be hard to distinguish Washington County from its suburban Milwaukee neighbors. But there are indeed differences. Waukesha County has three times the number of people and five times the GDP as Washington County. Ozaukee County, on the other hand, boasts miles of lakeshore and tends to be more affluent with more than double the percentage of households making more than $200,000 and a median income around 10% higher at $81,100.
It can also be hard to move beyond viewing Washington County’s communities, Richfield and Germantown especially, as bedroom communities.
“Richfield is a bedroom community, it’s always going to be a bedroom community, there’s no changing that,” Healy said.
By its literal definition of living in the community but not working there, Washington County has moved more towards being a bedroom community. In 1990, more than 54% of residents worked in the county, a figure that dropped to 50.4% by 2000 and 48.8% in 2015, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The shift has been driven primarily by more residents working in Waukesha County, even as the proportion working in Milwaukee County declines. In 1990, 22.1% of Washington County residents worked in Milwaukee and just 13.8% in Waukesha. By 2015, the two were nearly equal at 19.5% and 19.2% respectively.
Schoemann acknowledged that in the past, Washington County was largely satisfied being out of the limelight in the metro Milwaukee area.
“For a long time, Washington County has kind of been this afterthought and largely an unknown,” he said.
But he also said the tenor and attitude of the county has changed.
“We want to be a thought leader in the M7,” he said, noting that will require the county to start acting like one. “I think we’re ready and willing to start stepping up to be at the table with regional conversations. We know that people are going to start looking our way and we’re excited for the opportunity.”
Schoemann said the county is positioned to help smaller towns handle development, suggesting the shift is less about turning from agriculture to manufacturing than it is acknowledging the county has a strong manufacturing base – around 27% of its GDP comes from the sector – and then building on that base.
“There’s an economic identity in that county that really does set them apart compared to some other places, and that’s manufacturing,” Paetsch said.
Tscheschlok and Schoemann also both touted the county’s Site Redevelopment Program, which has landed $2 million in U.S. Environmental Protection Administration grants, including $800,000 this year for a revolving loan fund.
The funding has supported site inventory and prioritization, creation of redevelopment plans, environmental assessments, site investigation and other activities. Through early this year, those efforts have supported the redevelopment of 32 brownfield acres and the construction of 262 new housing units. They also supported more than $46 million in additional investment.
“For every development we can pull off within these brownfield sites … that’s one less farm field we have to tear up and gives us more time to do that planning,” Schoemann said.
Tscheschlok said the program requires upfront commitment and investment from communities but also benefits from collaboration across municipalities and putting existing infrastructure assets back to use.
“All of the communities are coming together in Washington County, making decisions about how to allocate scarce redevelopment resources,” he said. “The market has already said, ‘We can’t handle these properties on our own,’ and therefore they sit and become increasingly blighted, either through perception of the potential of environmental contamination or real environmental contamination. Either way, the result is the same: there’s no movement.”
One of the brownfield projects supported by the program is Rincon 225, a six-story, 82-unit apartment building set to open this year in downtown Hartford. The property was previously used for grain distribution, malt processing, a creamery, meat processing, offices and grocery stores over the years and included six blighted residential and commercial buildings when the project started.
It’s just one of the kinds of developments that helped put Hartford among the region’s fastest- growing municipalities a few years ago. For the decade, the city’s population is up 8.6%, the 28th largest increase among Wisconsin’s 150 biggest municipalities.
A marketing flyer for the city pitches Hartford as “a vibrant city masquerading as a small town.” Henke noted that even with just over 15,000 residents, the city has a 600-seat theater, indoor and outdoor water parks and major employers with global reach.
He said Hartford has benefited from strong collaboration among the chamber, the Hartford Area Economic Development Corp. and the Hartford Business Improvement District in downtown. For the county to continue to grow, he said communities will need to continue to collaborate.
“Economic development is a dirty business, we’re all in it for ourselves and our communities,” Henke said before adding that bringing development anywhere in the county benefits everyone.
The challenge for Hartford, Henke said, is to continue its growth by making sure current and potential future residents are aware of its amenities.
“Maybe not always at the pace that we’re at, but I think a good steady growth is always good. If you stay stagnant, you’re probably going downhill soon,” he said.
To the east in West Bend, the city and developers are also investing in amenities for the community, adding a 68-room TownePlace Suites Marriott and multi-tenant office building on the former Gehl Co. manufacturing site downtown. The city has also seen several new apartment and mixed-use projects along with the rehabilitation of the historic West Bend Theatre. (See special report story for more details.)
According to Tscheschlok, someone visiting the community even just three or four years ago “would have seen a very different community.”
South of downtown West Bend, the city landed Milwaukee Tool as the first company that plans to build a facility in its 216-acre industrial park. The project could create up to 100 jobs by 2025.
Paetsch said the project is a good example of the benefits of having a user identified and a building adjacent to existing infrastructure in expanding a development area.
“It’s expensive to bring water, sewer, roads, telecommunications, all that stuff is expensive to do,” he said.
Back down Highway 45, Richfield is eyeing the possibility of developing around 300 acres located just north of the Kwik Trip store on Holy Hill Road. After determining that the cost of building its own sewer and water system to serve the site would be “astronomical,” the village is now in talks with Germantown to extend service across the interstate, Healy said, adding it would cost around $2 million to extend service, but development won’t happen on the site without it.
“Bringing in sewer and water, is that going to change the landscape of our community? I don’t think so, but I think there will be people who are concerned that our residential lots will eventually someday become sewer and water,” Healy said.
He noted that the village would have to go to a public referendum to extend sewer and water west of Highway 175, and it likely wouldn’t be feasible because of the engineering needed to navigate the rolling Kettle Moraine hills of the community.
Dean Wolter, Germantown village president, said the two communities are still exploring the possibilities of extending service.
“We don’t want to try and purge business away from one another; we really want to create a cohesive development out there that works well, not only for each of our residents but also just for the area in general,” he said. “It’s still in its infancy, but we have a very good, open dialogue, and so far all the communications have been very positive.”
For Germantown, just extending the sewer and water infrastructure to the Briggs site was a new frontier.
“For years, Freistadt Road was kind of the demarcation line where no sewer and water … no big development, no concentrated, high-density residential communities went north of Freistadt Road,” Wolter said. “There still is a group of residents who I think would like to see it that way.”
After the Briggs building, the Holy Hill Road area has seen a 204,400-square-foot building for Smart Warehousing, a 100,000-square-foot industrial facility as the new headquarters for Dielectric Corp., a 240,000-square-foot headquarters building for Illing Co. and multiple spec buildings built or proposed.
Wolter said there has also been some interest on the south side of Holy Hill Road, and as the need to manage more traffic increases there is an opportunity for frontage roads to connect to Highway 145 to the north and Freistadt to the south.
As that development opportunity emerges, Wolter said he would like to see some smaller industrial and manufacturing buildings, but not to the point “where you see a wall of warehousing or a wall of large buildings as you travel the freeways.”
He said some additional services like a small restaurant chain, medical service, a gym or other amenities for the area’s workforce would be good.
But, like many things for Washington County, any commercial development would be a balancing act.
“I don’t want to see another large commercial development in that area like we have along County Line Road,” Wolter said. “It would detract and take business away from our commercial areas.”
He also said it would be good to see some higher density residential areas near the new developments in the northwest part of the village, transitioning to one- and two-acre lots moving east. The northeast portion of the village, on the other hand, will likely stay more rural in nature, Wolter said.
“I think our community very distinctly knows areas or likes areas where they would like to see growth and they’re very outspoken as to where they don’t want to see growth,” he added.
Tscheschlok said the county benefits from an understanding of where residents want to see development.
“We are not arguing in Washington County about where development should take place or how it should take place,” he said, adding he has worked in other states and countries where that is not the case.
The formula for continuing to strike the right balance is to invest in places where assets already exist through efforts like the brownfield program, direct new investment to places where infrastructure suggests it should take place and pay attention to the existing supply chain in the county to support existing businesses, according to Tscheschlok.
“If you don’t pay attention to that and you don’t actively and proactively develop policies, programs and procedures around those three, then you would have unmitigated growth,” he said.
Tscheschlok pointed out that not managing growth can lead to haphazard development and the loss of unique assets. For Washington County, a balanced approach to growth is one of the key selling points to the potential workforce of the future.
“If one of the unique elements that’s allowed us to attract and grow … is that we’ve struck that balance historically, the only way that we’re going to continue to accelerate having that quality workforce here is by continuing that balance,” Tscheschlok said.
At the same time, he’d also like to see Washington County move beyond its current perceptions.
“In 10 to 15 years, you won’t see the county specializing as a bedroom county or a collar county,” Tscheschlok said. “What you’re seeing being built out today, and I anticipate will be all the more manifest in 10 to 15 years from now, is that we are creating a destination spot in our own right.”