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Caution signs on the road to retail glory PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 August 2012 17:26

The prospect of an enormous commercial operation running 24-7 will secure Grafton’s title as a retail showcase, but who benefits?

“I see this contributing to Grafton as a retail showcase in Ozaukee County.”

    Kathleen Schilling, director of Ozaukee Economic Development, certainly got that right in her comment to Ozaukee Press about plans for a Meijer store in Grafton.

    Already a showcase, Grafton is a bona fide retail phenomenon—a small village that lures shoppers off the freeway with a sprawling extravaganza of big-name big-box stores. Now its officials seem eager to approve a “supercenter” that would be the biggest of all the Grafton big-boxes.

    This is a good time, before the village government gives that development the blessings it needs to proceed, to ask: What is the goal here? Is it to make Grafton an even more impressive retail showcase and claim the bragging rights that go with that distinction? Or is it to foster reasonable economic growth that makes life better for the residents of Grafton? If it’s the latter, just how will the Meijer development make that happen?

    The answers matter because the Meijer grocery/department store could have an impact as outsized as its statistics. It would be the largest commercial building in the village, measuring 191,352 square feet, or 4.4 acres. A parking lot for 683 vehicles would cover many more acres. There would be rows of gas pumps and a convenience store. The whole complex would be open for business 24 hours a day everyday.

    It was evident at a recent public hearing before the Plan Commission that village officials find much to like in the Meijer development. For one thing, the proposal fits well in the village’s master plan; the 33-acre site just south of the Home Depot store is earmarked for freeway exchange business.

    For another, Meijer, with 200 stores in five states, has a sterling reputation as a high-quality retailer whose customers seem to love it (an impression supported by praise from a number of people at the public hearing).

    Yet there are also ramifications of the development that should worry officials, including the fact that the flood of customer vehicles and trucks supplying the megastore will add significant congestion to roads and intersections that are already stressed by heavy traffic.

    The effects will be particularly burdensome for the residents of the nearby Hunters Crossing subdivision, who will also have to put up with the noise and lighting of an around-the-clock operation.

    Village officials need to take a clear-eyed look at the economic benefits of the development. The valuation increase will be a boon, of course. On the other hand, the store will hardly be a major employer; the full-time and part-time workforce is expected to eventually reach 62.

    If nothing else, the sheer size of the development—the biggest commercial development in village history—ought to serve as a caution sign Grafton’s elected representatives should not ignore.

    The development looks out of scale with the community. For in spite of its spectacular east-side commercial development, Grafton still functions like the small village it is. Like its neighboring communities, it has recently had trouble paying for services and has had to cut back. Taxes levied for municipal purposes are roughly the same as communities that aren’t retail showcases.           

    The Grafton police force, which could expect significant new demands with the opening of a massive 24/7 retail operation, needs more manpower, but the village has been unable to authorize hiring because of funding constraints. Only with a newly approved federal grant will the department be able to start to meet its needs by hiring one additional officer.    

    And even as it considers adding a building measured in acres the village is still trying to get by with an all-volunteer fire department. When that changes, as it must as soon as possible, fire department operation costs borne by taxpayers will soar.

    Meanwhile, Grafton’s downtown, the traditional heart of the village, is struggling.

    There is no question that the Meijer supercenter would be a coup for Grafton that would be a dazzling enhancement of its status as a retail showcase.

    Does that make it a good thing for the people of Grafton?

A fair wind fills Port’s sails PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 16:02

Three developments that came out of the blue have the downtown poised for economic rebirth after years of struggling

    Restoring the economy of a small-town downtown sometimes resembles a sailing voyage. The vessel has to tack into strong head winds and progress is discouragingly slow. But then the wind shifts and blows fresh from astern and the vessel leaps forward toward its goal.

    Port Washington’s downtown has the wind at its back at the moment, thanks to sudden and unexpected developments concerning three landmark buildings.

    The announcement of the planned purchase and remodeling of the Lueptow building, the gift of $1 million to the Port Washington Historical Society to buy and restore the Businessmen’s Club building and the imminent opening of a Duluth Trading Co. retail store in the Smith Bros. building add up to a gale of good news.

    The buyer of the enormous Lueptow edifice, Wall Street financial executive and former Port Washington resident Daniel Ewig, has the vision and the means to bring viable retail businesses to the building’s street level and ensure the continuing downtown presence of a technology company that occupies parts of the building. Moreover, he will strike a needed blow for city aesthetics by restoring the facade to its original dignified design and razing a long-vacant house behind the building.

    The vast Duluth store, to open early autumn,  fills a vacancy that has vexed the city since the landmark Smith Bros. Fish Shanty restaurant closed several years ago and, more important, offers the prospect of a lasting retail anchor. Duluth is a successful catalog and online clothing marketer and is in for the long haul.

    The museum the Historical Society will create in the Businessmen’s Club building with the million-dollar gift from an anonymous donor will not be a commercial enterprise, of course, but it will be a spur to downtown business nonetheless. The museum will be a tourist attraction, and the purchase of the decaying structure from the owner of the adjacent, connected M&I Bank building gives him more flexibility to redevelop that property.

    There’s a big serendipity factor in these developments—they sort of came out of the blue—but that is not to say Port does not deserve them. On the contrary, no community has worked harder than Port Washington to bring commercial life back to a downtown that once teemed with shoppers supporting retail businesses that filled every Franklin Street storefront. It has earned a favorable wind shift.

    Starting with the Business Improvement District, formed before the turn of the (21st) century and supported by financial contributions from downtown property owners, which morphed into the Port Washington Main Street program, bolstered by Tourism Council marketing that has brought a steadily increasing flow of visitors to the city, and abetted by the Chamber of Commerce, Port Washington has fought back from a dismal time when it seemed the downtown had no commercial future.

    The battle is not close to being won, as the still too numerous vacant commercial spaces attest. But the signs, even beyond the big three mentioned above, are hopeful, none more so than the spirit shown by the volunteers recruited by Main Street to organize downtown events. Thanks to them, the Community Street Festival, Ladies Night Out, the Maritime Heritage Festival and other events not only give residents and visitors a good time, but showcase the downtown as the delightful place it is, worth repeated visits.

    A few grizzled veterans of the downtown wars wistfully recall a time when there were so many shoppers in town on Friday nights that a police officer had to direct traffic at Franklin and Main.

    That’s warm and fuzzy history that isn’t likely to be repeated—those were pre-mall, pre-freeway days when Port Washington was a comprehensive commercial center serving a large trade area. Now the downtown is on the cusp of making new history—with a renaissance as a city center enlivened by an eclectic  assortment of shops and restaurants, radiating small-town friendliness, historical character and maritime ambience.

    A fair wind indeed.

Grafton fire alarm PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 14:19

The times have caught up with Grafton’s long-standing all–volunteer fire department; now taxpayers have to come to its rescue

The Grafton Fire Department has been defying gravity for too long. It urgently needs to be shored up. The shoring material will have to be tax dollars.

    The GFD has been trying to carry on as an all-volunteer fire department. It’s a noble effort, but an unsustainable one.

    The department needs a paid, full-time chief with paid administrative support. And it needs the resources to pay its volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel, at least modestly, for their time spent dealing with emergencies and training for them.

    The immediate problem is finding enough volunteers. The fire department has fewer than 45 active members to handle more than 1,000 calls a year. It currently has only 15 EMTs.

    The long-term problem is that Grafton and society are changing, and neither fits very well these days with the all-volunteer fire department model.

    All-volunteer fire departments were for generations a small-town ideal. Volunteers committed vast portions of their lives to the institutions that were not only essential protectors of lives and property, but essential threads of the social fabric of their communities.

    We believe that today’s citizens are no less motivated than those volunteers of yore to give time to their communities, but in an ever more complex world, one that is full of good causes seeking volunteer help, they have less time to give. Moreover, fire department service requires a greater time commitment than in the past because of more stringent training requirements.

    It is to GFD’s credit that the all-volunteer fire department has endured as long as it has, because Grafton passed the point at which many fast-growing communities have opted for partially paid departments quite a while ago. Population has surged and property valuation—emblematic of the number of buildings that need fire protection—has soared in company with the village’s high-flying commercial development.

    Fire Chief John Place has made a persuasive case to the Village Board that changes have to be made now, or as close to now as possible. He recommended that between $410,000 and $886,000 be added to the department’s half-million-dollar budget to hire a full-time chief and provide on-call and training pay that would be a financial incentive and deserved compensation for volunteers.

    Port Washington made similar changes in its fire department several years ago, and today operates with a full-time paid chief, a part-time paid assistant and volunteers who get hourly compensation for firefighting, emergency medical calls and training, contributing to its robust recruitment.

    It is unfortunate that in Grafton’s case the Village Board and the Town of Grafton Board (village and town taxpayers support the fire department) cannot simply make the decision—the need for action is obvious. But state levy limits prohibit this sort of spending increase unless it is approved by voters in a referendum.

    A referendum question will have to be drafted by Sept. 17 so it can appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

    That should be done sooner rather than later so there is maximum opportunity to inform voters about what’s at stake, which is nothing less than the future of the Grafton Fire Department.

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