Metra boost

A 70-acre portion of the Kenosha lakefront was an industrial wasteland when it was acquired by the city 10 years ago. Prior to that, it was the site of a Simmons Mattress Co. plant, then American Motors, and later Chrysler operated on the property. In 1988, Chrysler pulled out, leaving a large, unused eyesore behind.

"It was just rubble and concrete," when the city bought the property, said Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian.

The city spent $18.5 million to clean up the site and $7 million to move the city’s natural history museum there. The redevelopment property was re-named Harbor Park.

Now, the property is teeming with development. New England Builders Inc. of Skokie, Ill., has built about 250 condominiums and townhouses at Harbor Park. Eventually, about 400 residential units will be built there, Antaramian said. About 30 of Harbor Park’s 70 acres will be developed, and the rest will be set aside for the museum and park land.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for an ugly property the city bought for just $1 in 1994.

"When the sight is fully developed, we anticipate it will be worth $100 million," Antaramian said.

Several factors have made the Harbor Park development a success, Antaramian said. Kenosha is attracting Illinois workers seeking lower housing prices. Harbor Park’s location near the lakefront is also a major attraction. Yet another important factor is Metra, the Chicago-area commuter rail service which includes a service line running from the Loop to Kenosha. The train station is within walking distance or a short ride from Harbor Park.

"Sixty percent of our (Harbor Park) buyers are from Illinois," said Lynne Kelley, director of sales and marketing for New England Builders. "Many of those people are commuters and they do take the train to Chicago. (Metra) has been a phenomenal assistance to us. That has been a big plus."

Antaramian said Metra has clearly played a major role in the revitalization of Kenosha’s downtown, including Harbor Park. Several restaurants and cafZs are opening in old downtown businesses. Also, some developers are thinking about building high-rise condo developments that would be about nine stories high. The city is waiting for Bob Watring to submit his plans for a nine-story condo building at 4th Avenue and 51st Street. Watring did not return a call seeking comment.

Antaramian said at least four other developers have discussed interest in similar high-rise condo developments. The mayor thinks his city will see several tall buildings go up downtown in the next few years. Those developments will add population density and boost downtown businesses, he said.

Metra allows Kenosha residents to get to downtown Chicago, the second-largest downtown business district in the nation after Midtown Manhattan, in about 1 1/2 hours without dealing with traffic, rising gas prices or parking issues. During the trip, Metra commuters can take a nap, read, work or put on makeup.

"It’s been very positive," Antaramian said. "I think it’s going to be one of the big draws for the continued growth of downtown."

Harbor Park residents can ride a streetcar to and from the city’s train station. About 75,000 people rode the streetcar last year. The streetcar loops around Harbor Park and also stops at the city’s transit center where people can transfer to a city bus.

Metra was created in the early 1980s, and Kenosha has been part of the commuter rail system since the beginning. Last year, about 340 people boarded Chicago-bound trains in Kenosha during the average weekday. That is almost a 10 percent increase from the 310 people who boarded Metra trains in Kenosha during the average weekday in 2000.

"It’s not a very heavily-used station," said Tom Miller, a Metra spokesperson. The average Metra station has about 645 people board during the average weekday. Kenosha’s station ranks as the 139th-busiest out of Metra’s 224 outlying stations.

Kenosha officials plan to spend $1 million in federal, state, city and Metra funds to improve the Kenosha train station next year. The platform will be rebuilt, and an elevator will be installed. Also, the dark and dingy stairway from the station to the platform will be totally rebuilt, Antaramian said.

Wisconsin officials are considering a plan to extend the Kenosha Metra line north to Milwaukee, mostly in hopes of stimulating development near the train stations, but also to help alleviate traffic on Interstate 94.

"It will be even better when they do (Metra) up to Milwaukee," said Kelley. "We have some residents who make the commute that way who would love to take the train. But they don’t have that choice, so they drive."

It would cost about $170 million to extend Metra service to Milwaukee, Kenosha County Public Works Director Frederick J. Patrie said.

Several local elected officials have endorsed the Metra extension, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, Racine Mayor Gary Becker, Racine County Executive William McReynolds, Kenosha County Executive Allan Kehl and Antaramian.

"If you look at transportation projects in general, where they run, development has a strong tendency to follow," Becker said. "I’m a huge proponent of extending (Metra) into Milwaukee and trying to bring the benefits Kenosha has seen through Racine and Milwaukee."

"I think it would be very helpful for the city of Racine and Milwaukee," Antaramian said. "I think it would be a major plus for the airport in Milwaukee."

General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee served a record number of passengers last year as travelers in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois have been attracted to an increasing number of discount airlines serving the airport.

Increasing passenger numbers is critical to attracting more airlines and more flights to Mitchell. The state is building a train depot for Amtrak, in part, to attract more air passengers from Illinois. If Metra service is extended to Milwaukee, a shuttle bus would run from a train station in Cudahy to the airport.

"(Taking Metra) to the airport would be wonderful," Antaramian said. "Flying out of Chicago O’Hare is a nightmare. I would (take the train to Mitchell). I think a lot of people would."

The federal government will pay about $3.2 million for the $4 million preliminary enginnering for the Metra extension. The state will provide $400,000, and local governments will provide another $400,000. State and local officials are close to finalizing an inter-governmental partnership to oversee the study. The partnership will include the cities and counties of Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha and the state Department of Transportation. Kehl and Patrie have offered to lead the partnership.

Once the members agree to the conditions of the partnership, they will put out a request for proposal for engineering firms to conduct the preliminary engineering. The engineering work is expected to take two years, Patrie said. If approved, the commuter rail service could be up and running in 2008, he said.

Antaramian said he doesn’t understand why the state is not being more aggressive in pursuing the Metra extension.

"I think the state is making a mistake not pushing the Metra even harder," he said. "You talk about economic development for the southeastern part of the state. You need a transportation system that works."

July 23, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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