What’s old is new

Work progresses on transformation of former Brillion Iron Works site

Posted on Aug 28, 2019 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

It’s been less than a year since Ariens Co. finalized its purchase of the former Brillion Iron Works site, and already the project has reached some significant milestones.

The progress is promising for Mark Olsen, a vice president with Ariens Co. A retired chief financial officer for the company, he stayed on in several capacities, including managing the Brillion Works project. While he and other Ariens leaders are eager to see it come to fruition, they know the project will take 10 to 15 years to complete.

“Anything of this size and really transforming a large area like this is going to take time, and that’s OK with us. We’re patient, weve been here a long time, and we plan to be here,” Olsen says.

The City of Brillion acquired the 142-acre property of the former Brillion Iron Works, which closed in the fall of 2016, and Ariens took out a 99-year lease on it and is actively managing and developing the site. The project is under the purview of CEO and Chairman Dan Ariens and his family rather than the company itself, Olsen says.

In addition to rolling out a logo, branding and website for the project, Ariens remodeled and moved into the site’s former farm implement building. It houses the company’s customer care center — called Rapid Care.

Ariens also is using a large area of land southeast of the implement building to develop a product engineering department. It plans to use the facility for outdoor testing of equipment and research and development. Olsen says the land offers an ideal location to allow the company to test both its lawnmowers and snowblowers.

Phase 1 of the project has a $10 million budget, and the city is supporting it with $3 million in tax incremental financing. In addition, last December, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. awarded the City of Brillion a $500,000 grant as part of its Idle Sites Redevelopment Program.

Olsen says the company anticipates finishing the process of scrapping the buildings’ abundant machinery and equipment by mid-September. The company has met with city and environmental consultants and is putting a demolition package out for bid. It’s seeking a vendor to demolish about three-fourths of the property’s buildings.

While Olsen says the property was well maintained, it needs some environmental remediation, including abatement of lead and asbestos. The WEDC grant will help cover the cost of that, and Olsen expects remediation will wrap up by April 1, with Phase 1 slated for completion by the end of 2020.

Phase 2 includes plans for housing, commercial and real estate development as well as recreational amenities. Olsen says Brillion faces a shortage of affordable housing, so the plan includes adding apartments. As of right now, about 70 percent of Ariens’ 1,000 workers commute from outside Brillion, as is the case for the city’s other major employers, including Endries International and Professional Plating.

Olsen says Brillion has much to offer prospective residents, including excellent schools, safety, good-paying jobs and a convenient midway point between Appleton and Manitowoc. In addition, some industry partners that support Ariens are considering locating to the city to provide parts and materials, he says, which would bring more jobs.

“We hope to see a thriving Brillion community with affordable housing, attractive to young people and industry that young people will gravitate to, a good school system and a safe environment,” Olsen says.

Lemons to lemonade

When Mary Kohrell, community economic development director for Calumet County, learned last summer that the state planned to end its revolving loan fund program, it left her with a lot to figure out. When it ended, the state took the money from the program and gave it back to municipalities to use — with certain caveats and requirements.

Under the new program, called Community Development Block Grant-CLOSE or CDBG-CLOSE, all locally held economic development revolving loan funds are held for communities to have non-competitive access to as grants, according to the state Department of Administration website. It also addresses U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development concerns about revolving loan funds — the reason the former program ended.

Calumet County had a revolving loan fund balance of more than $1 million, and Kohrell didn’t know how it would use the funds. When she learned, however, that authorized uses included spending up to $75,000 to create an economic development plan, she knew she had at least part of an answer.

The county enlisted the consulting services of Menomonie-based Cedar Corp. to help develop a plan looking at workforce and senior housing demand in its cities and villages. The company is preparing the county’s CDBG-CLOSE development plan grant application.

With Cedar’s help, Kohrell hopes the county will figure out where to invest its $1.2 million and how best to leverage the money to apply for and attract funding from other sources, including CDBG, the Environmental Protection Agency and the WEDC. The consultants can also help communities build sets of priorities, and the process will provide free data to the county’s cities and villages.

“This is real for them because it helps them, hopefully, attract developers and leverage other grant money,” Kohrell says.

Housing isn’t the only issue facing the county when it comes to its workforce. Like everywhere else, it’s addressing an aging workforce and many impending retirements and is looking to attract young workers.

Kohrell and others hope Inspire Calumet-Outagamie County, which is run through CESA 6, will help connect employers to the next generation of talent. The program provides students exposure to careers and can facilitate experiences such as job shadows, mentorship opportunities and internships.

The state mandates academic and career planning, so Kohrell says most schools have plans in place, but businesses need to do their part as well.

“The business side of it is difficult, and I think there’s a culture of businesses just assuming, ‘I can just keep calling the high school and get their people.’ That is the part that’s going to shift, and Inspire just helps that all be more efficient,” she says.

Chilton, Stockbridge add historic murals

A pair of murals — one completed in Chilton and one underway in Stockbridge — depict and celebrate the communities’ heritage and history.

Commissioned through the Calumet County Mural Initiative, the project received support from the Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region, the Bright Idea Fund, the Chilton Community Foundation, the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Calumet County Historical Society.

The county tapped artist and Chilton native James Barany, who’s also a professor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, to complete the project. He says he wanted to combine art and history, including Calumet County’s strong Native American heritage, and strove to incorporate accuracy and authenticity in the works.

“This is as much about our history and our community as it is about public art,” he says. “It’s like fulfilling a life’s dream to be able to come back and do this.”