Whitewater is losing people and jobs, but city leaders cannot afford to lose their patience as they wait for a $10 million technology park to spark a turnaround for the city.
Fostering a successful business or technology park to attract companies and people to the area could take several years, said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
“There is definite growth potential in Whitewater for research and development,” he said. “But they’re going to have to be patient. University Research Park in Madison is very successful, but it took 10 years to get its legs under it.”
The city is joining forces with the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to build the Whitewater University Technology Park near the city’s business park. City leaders want the new park to help Whitewater retain university graduates and spur interest in business.
“We’re in need of more employment opportunities,” said Alderman Lynn Binnie. “We also want more professionals living in the community. We have a lot of housing stock in the community that we need to fill.”
The city is in the process of selecting a design firm for the park’s first building, the estimated $5 million Whitewater Innovation Center, said City Manager Kevin Brunner. The city will need another $5 million, he said, for additional land acquisition and infrastructure improvements.
The proposal is generating interest from prospective tenants, Brunner said, although he would not say which or how many businesses are interested.
“Ideally, we want to begin the design process soon and be in the ground fairly quickly, maybe by the end of the year or early next year,” he said.
But start-up businesses that usually become tenants in such developments are struggling to get financial backing during the recession, Still said.
“Investments are harder to come by right now,” he said. “You’re probably going to have to wait a while for more bootstrapping to come along.”
While the university is on the hook for “intellectual capital,” Brunner said, it is up to the city to find the $10 million for the project. Although the city’s Community Development Authority has some money, and tax-incremental financing likely will be used for road and other infrastructure upgrades, the city also will have to rely on bonding and grants, Brunner said.
“We’ve applied for a federal grant of about $3.4 million to start the project,” he said. “If we don’t get it, that would delay the project. But it doesn’t mean we would give up on it. We need this for the area, and we’re committed to the project.”
Even if the project does not quickly produce the effects Whitewater wants, the city cannot afford to wait, Binnie said.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “Then we can hope for progress.”