North side has plans, even without Oscar Mayer

When Kraft Heinz Co. announced last week that it plans to close Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant and eliminate about 1,000 jobs within the next two years, the surrounding community mourned.

Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), who had worked in the plant as a teenager, compared the city’s loss of Oscar Mayer to the death of a family member. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin called Oscar Mayer employees, “the heart and soul of the north side.”

An Oscar Mayer spokesman said the company will work with Wisconsin officials to locate a buyer that could keep potentially keep the facility open, and Soglin hopes the company might reconsider and stay.

But the news is a significant setback at a time when many north side residents are fighting to attract economic development to the area. The likely departure of one of the neighborhood’s largest employers disrupts their progress–and makes their efforts even more vital.

Lauri Lee, chair of the Northside Economic Development Coalition, is concerned not only about the employees losing their jobs but also about the nearby businesses that depend on Oscar Mayer workers coming in before and after work and during lunch. Lee worries about the north side “having one more big empty building, being seen as blighted and having that money [being spent by employees] disappear.”

‘The best-kept secret in Madison’

Well before news broke of the Oscar Mayer plant closing, several north side groups had taken it upon themselves to market the area to businesses. As chair of NEDC, Lee was at the forefront of these efforts.

She said north side residents sometimes feel overlooked by the city when they see the amount of development happening on the west and east sides of town.

“Yet we keep hearing that we’re the best-kept secret in Madison,” Lee said. “We thought, if we’re the best-kept secret, we need to pull together all of the information in a way that will make people look at us and see what we have to offer.”

NEDC coordinated with the Northside Planning Council and the Northside Business Association to compile a booklet detailing the area’s offerings and demographics to potential businesses.

“A friendly community, Madison’s north side is distinguished by a ‘something for everyone’ environment,” the cover says.

The area has around 19,000 residents, 23,500 jobs and more than 1,000 businesses. Covance is the largest employer with around 1,800 employees; Oscar Mayer, which will likely close, is the second largest, for now. Other large employers include Great Lakes Higher Education, Webcrafters and Bell Labs.

The north side’s ‘great potential’

Ruth Rohlich, the city’s business development specialist, works with businesses interested in moving to the Madison area and includes NEDC’s booklet in the materials she gives to those considering the north side.

Rohlich sees potential in the area. She said the north side is “logistically one of the best places” for businesses whose operations involve warehousing and trucking because of its proximity to major roadways and the airport. “And it’s still only about 10 minutes away from downtown,” she said.

Unlike a lot of the city, it has several areas of zoning that allow for light industrial uses. North Sherman Avenue was one of three locations the city was considering for a public market. The city settled on a site on East Washington Avenue and North First Street, situated between the east side and north side.

“The market would require some light industrial uses, and the neighborhood has so far been very supportive of that goal,” Rohlich said.

With places like Troy Community Gardens and FEED Kitchens, a facility that rents kitchen space to individuals and small businesses by the hour, the public market would have been a natural addition to what many consider an emerging “food innovation district.”

At Soglin’s neighborhood roundtable on Oct. 24, Natalie Erdman, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, said the city is pursuing an employer in the food industry for a site on the north side but said she wasn’t able to share details about the employer or the location when reached by phone.

“I see the north side as having great potential and certainly employment uses on the north side would be a priority for the city,” Erdman said.

‘The development gods smiled on us’

Dolores Kester, co-chair of the Sherman Neighborhood Association, has owned her house on Winchester Street since 1982. She’s seen the Sherman Neighborhood Association wane and strengthen but said it’s been active in recent years.

Kester has stayed put because she likes the neighborhood’s diversity of income levels, ethnicities and levels of education. She said the people tend to be “thoughtful and artistic” and alluded to a neighborhood yard art project covered by local newspapers as proof.

Pat Morgan, who is a member of the Sherman Neighborhood Association council (and a member of the same book club as Kester), lived on the west side for many years before moving to be closer to where she worked at the time. She never thought she’d stop finding reasons to go back to the west side. “But I never go there anymore,” she said. “Why would you need to?”

At a recent Sherman Neighborhood Association meeting, the agenda had an item titled “EYESORES.” One of the sites discussed was an abandoned Hertz Car Rental lot on Packers Avenue; another was the former site of All Auto Repair on North Sherman Avenue. Both had deserted buildings and large parking lots filled with weeds.

The neighborhood association copied the agenda to Larry Palm, the district’s alder. They had also sent him a letter suggesting potential uses of the Hertz lot in particular several months earlier.

Just recently, a local developer came forward with preliminary plans for multi-unit apartment buildings on both the Hertz and the All Auto Repair sites.

Kester doesn’t know if the group’s letter had anything to do with attracting the developer’s interest, but she likes to think so.

“We put our idea into the universe and guess what? The development gods smiled on us,” Kester said.

Envisioning the future

A lot of people have ideas for the north side. Many of the ideas center around encouraging variety, one of the area’s biggest selling points.

“We’re going to need to support small businesses as well as create an environment for the larger ones,” Palm said.

Palm said while many residents seem to be in agreement, some of the same residents push back on proposed projects.

“People say, ‘We can’t have density, we can’t have more people, but we want more amenities.’ It’s been a challenge as a representative, for me, to say that those things conflict,” he said.

Palm hopes thoughtful development will bring more people to the north side, expand the base of customers supporting small businesses and create the neighborhood people envision.

“If you look at [the small businesses on] Monroe Street or Williamson Street, the reason they’re robust is because they’ve been adding housing units to bring people in there,” he said.

Kester hopes that as eyesores are developed, the character of the area will be maintained but the landscape will improve. If Oscar Mayer leaves as planned and does not find a buyer, the north side will have the added challenge of figuring out what to do with the massive site.