The steady decline of manufacturing in southeast Wisconsin has many city officials, developers and residents considering the benefits of reinvention.
Continued plant closings and high unemployment rates indicate a diminishing industrial landscape, but affordable real estate and access to two large metropolitan areas is positioning the region north of the Illinois border for commercial and residential growth, said Lou Molitor, executive director of the Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Kenosha is the heart of the whole I-94 corridor from Milwaukee to Chicago,” he said. “Even with the loss of manufacturing, I think we can still have the kind of economic development that would position ourselves for the next 20 to 25 years.”
For decades, the area has attracted residents of northern Illinois, and in the midst of a national recession, today’s lower home prices and taxes on the Wisconsin side of the border can be alluring.
“It’s a difficult period of time right now for Racine County because we’ve lost a lot of jobs in the manufacturing sector,” said Roger Caron, president of the Racine Area Manufacturing and Commerce Inc.
“But at the same time, the housing remains very affordable. People from the Chicago area who want to have a boat on Lake Michigan, for instance, can’t believe the kinds of home values they can find up here.”
The notion that cities in southeast Wisconsin can reap economic rewards by becoming a series of bedroom communities for Chicago-bound commuters has figured into numerous development projects during the past several years. Construction of new homes and retail sites, improvements to Interstate 94, availability of Amtrak service and plans for enhanced railway with the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line had many communities poised to make that transition before the national recession hit in late 2008.
“For Racine County in particular, we feel we’re primed to grow because of our tremendous property value,” Caron said. “All we need is for things to get rolling.”
But the sluggish national economy has all but halted much of the local development that would appeal to potential transplants from Illinois. The trade-off of a longer commute to Chicago for southeastern Wisconsin’s affordable homes may be more enticing than ever in today’s economy, but it’s that stagnant climate that has created a virtual standstill.
“Back in 2007 and 2008, when the economy was booming, there was a housing project that would coincide with the KRM rail transit system,” said James Smith, Town Board chairman in Somers. “The economy began to falter and, as with most projects in the area, the plan came to a screaming halt. The plans are still viable and only waiting for the economy to turn around.”
The River Vista housing project in Somers was conceptualized by Fettner Development & Construction Co., Northbrook, Ill. Marketed in part toward would-be commuters as “luxury homes in Kenosha County at affordable prices,” the townhomes are slated to start at $299,000.
“We have a great project planned for the area with various homes, townhomes and some light retail stuff,” said Jay Hergott of Fettner. “But for now, it’s just going to have to wait until we see signs of the economy improving, like jobs being created and foreclosures getting taken care of.”
Meanwhile, leaders in communities in southeast Wisconsin are waiting to seize the opportunity when development picks up.
“Rather than lay down and die,” Molitor said, “sometimes it’s just a matter of remarketing yourself.”