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Habitat eyes Royster-Clark site

Paul Snyder

Habitat for Humanity of Dane County has big plans for the abandoned Royster-Clark plant site in Madison, but it must determine whether the project is affordable.

“I’m sitting here with a map on my desk and a development team right now crunching numbers,” said Perry Ecton, Habitat for Humanity of Dane County’s executive officer. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

The nonprofit group wants to build a mixed-use development including housing, retail and the possible new Dane County HFH headquarters on the 26 acres, and has made an offer to the site’s owner, Canada-based Agrium Inc.

Ecton refused to disclose how much HFH offered or how much housing or retail the redeveloped site would hold. The group is to present its plans for the site to the city’s Plan Commission Oct. 5. HFH has until Dec. 28 to decide whether to pursue the purchase.

The site requires extensive environmental cleanup and demolition work. Ecton said HFH will need all the financial aid it can get to secure the deal. He did not disclose an amount.

Cleaning the soil alone could cost $1.6 million, according to remediation report filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources by Madison-based engineering firm BT2 Inc.

“As far as contamination goes, there are moderate levels,” said Tom Culp, a senior project manager with BT2.

“It’s a manageable amount. It’s just more widespread than you see on other sites.”

Soil contaminants include lead, petroleum and nitrogen left by the former fertilizer plant that closed in 2006. Culp said none of the contaminants is at a hazardous level.

Paul Poister, Agrium spokesman, said the company is committed to helping with the cleanup. He did not say how much money Agrium would provide.

Since the plant closed, Madison has encouraged sale and development of the site in the Lake Edge neighborhood, even forming a development plan. City officials say Madison cannot afford to buy and develop the property. Private development efforts have fizzled

In 2007, Tom Sather, president of Middleton-based Silverstone Partners Inc., teamed with Michael Hershberger, president of Madison-based Urban Solutions Inc., for a mixed-use project. But when the real estate market stalled in 2008, Sather and Hershberger abandoned their plans.

Madison might offer some aid through business development grants provided by the state Department of Commerce earlier this year, as well as tax-incremental financing help, said Alderman Larry Palm, who represents the district containing the site.

“Of course, the irony there is you need a building there to demonstrate blight for TIF purposes, and everyone wants that building gone,” he said. “But if we have an examiner check it out before demolition, it should be fine.”

Still, Madison may not have much financial aid to offer in the next couple of years. The city made major financial commitments to a new Central Library and redevelopment of the Edgewater Hotel in its 2010 capital budget.

Ecton said the deal is far from sealed, but HFH likes the opportunity the site offers.

“It’s doing the right thing for the community,” he said. “It needs to be cleaned up. Everyone wants it cleaned up. We just need to make sure we can make it work and finish crunching numbers for the environmental issues and development potential.”

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