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Madison corridor defies development

Paul Snyder
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An unfriendly economy, a shaky commercial market and indifference by city planners have stalled development on Madison’s John Nolen Drive.

It’s a debilitating combination of factors for an area that holds so much promise, said Alderman Tim Bruer, who represents the district.

“It’s been just painful to see the corridor emerge from a dumping ground into this viable opportunity,” he said, referring to the area’s lack of construction projects. “From a development standpoint, it’s perhaps the greatest sleeping giant in this city.”

The giant likely will not awaken soon. The strip of land from south Madison to downtown was blanketed with hotel and business proposals last year, but not one has turned dirt.

Tom Arnot, owner of De Pere-based Beechwood Development LLC, proposed one of those hotels and announced this summer that a lack of credit nixed his project. He said John Nolen Drive will remain quiet for a long time.

“Until business is reinvigorated, the fact is that all office and commercial markets in this city are overbuilt and underoccupied,” he said. “For anyone to go out and create more right now doesn’t seem like the right idea.”

Madison has an abundance of commercial properties littered with vacancies, said Mark Olinger, the city’s director of planning and development. Furthermore, he said, the city is in no rush to spark development along John Nolen.

“I’ve never heard anyone in the public or private sector suggest to me that there are significant issues with that corridor,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard with (Bruer) on other corridors, but John Nolen Drive can take care of itself. It just may take time.”

Developers are interested in the area, Bruer said. He said he has talked to companies this year about mixed-use and hotel projects, but every idea hinges on financing.

One proposal for John Nolen is still a possibility. The Oshkosh-based Supple Group has not given up on its plan for a 136-room hotel with a Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant, Bruer said.

Supple Group CEO Jay Supple did not return calls for comment before deadline Wednesday.

If project plans keep stalling, Bruer said, the city should talk to county representatives about ways to boost growth around the nearby Alliant Energy Center and Dane County Coliseum.

But Olinger said Madison improved the streetscapes and landscapes along the corridor and, short of establishing a tax incremental financing district that he said the city is not considering, there’s little else to do.

Still, Bruer said, the combination of high interest and low activity in the corridor is a problem that begs for a solution.

“Tom Arnot had a reputation for never having had a hotel project that failed or couldn’t secure financing, so that says something,” Bruer said. “We’re just seeing a real drag on that corridor.”

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