A major employer is leaving town, and a high-speed rail stop might or might not be arriving soon.
At the crossroads between the body blow to local employment and the windfall of a transportation corridor are Watertown’s leaders, stuck with the dilemma of charting new developments for a city in flux.
“It’s frustrating not to know what’s going to happen,” said Watertown Mayor Ron Krueger. “On one hand, there’s about $50 million in construction either ongoing or starting this year. On the other, some of its delayed, and no one knows what kind of state or federal help might be coming.”
Milwaukee-based Briggs & Stratton announced last week it will close its Watertown and Jefferson factories in 2010, eliminating more than 500 jobs in Jefferson County. Krueger, who is chairman of the Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium, said the group will start planning Wednesday for how to attract new business and what to do with the soon-to-be-empty factories.
Watertown Alderman Ken Berg, who is a commercial and industrial property owner and real estate agent in the area, said population growth has slowed throughout the state, and the city would be better off trying to retain, rather than attract, businesses and residents.
“We’re clearly going to be treading water,” he said.
But Krueger said he wants growth, and the key might be the possibility of a local stop on the estimated $500 million Milwaukee to Madison high-speed rail line. The city already is discussing new riverfront development plans as part of a tax-incremental financing district that would include the rail stop.
“It’s a very important part of our future,” Krueger said. “It’s going to make this area more accessible to people from larger cities.”
City leaders expect federal stimulus money to help finance the majority of the rail stop project’s cost, which Krueger said could range from $3 million to $15 million. But the state likely will not find out how much federal aid the project will get until December, so there are no promises federal money will cover construction of the rail stop or that Watertown will get the building it wants.
State Rep. Joel Kleefish, R-Oconomowoc, said Wisconsin needs to do more to attract business before the state commits to a high-speed rail project that might not recoup its development costs.
The same applies to Watertown, he said, which first must give businesses a reason to come to the city.
“Watertown is an amazing and wonderful place to live and work,” he said. “But without employers, you don’t have employees. And with all the red tape and higher taxes the state budget’s put in place, many businesses are deciding it’s just easier to move out of state.”
Watertown Alderman John Meyer said he is skeptical about how much economic development the rail stop would generate in the city.
“I can’t see it helping that much,” he said. “With the economy the way it is, I got a feeling it’s going to be pretty lean here for the next few years.”
But Krueger said the situation will only get worse without the regional boost the high-speed rail project could bring.
“We’ve always tried to attract business, and we always try to follow up with inquiries,” he said. “For a long time, businesses talked about expanding here. Right now, it’s going in the other direction. It hurts.”