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Factory conversion a downtown catalyst?

May 11, 2019 GMT

JEFFERSON -- It’s been a long time coming, but the $10.5 million Candise Street Lofts project in Jefferson appears about ready to commence and could be an invaluable link between the heart of downtown and what the city is planning for development up the Rock River near Puerner Street.

“This has been a long process and we greatly appreciate Gorman & Company’s investment in the city,” Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann told the Daily Times following a Tuesday common council meeting. It was during this session that a development agreement for the lofts was approved.

Gorman & Company is the Oregon, Wisconsin-based developer handling renovation of the historic, former Jefferson Furniture Co. and Schweiger Furniture Co. facility. Most recently it was home to Foremost Buildings, which relocated to the city’s North Industrial Park in 2012. The building’s extensive manufacturing background is acknowledged on state and federal historic preservation lists.

According to its website, Gorman & Company, “works to revitalize communities through innovative housing partnerships.” It said as a “trusted partner and respected industry leader since 1984,” it specializes in downtown revitalization, preservation of affordable housing, workforce housing and the adaptive reuse of significant historic buildings.

Schweiger Furniture Co. was one of the largest furniture manufacturers in the United States in its day, employing innumerable Jefferson residents over the years. The building dates to approximately 1913.

When completed, the Candise Street Lofts will contain 36 residences for people of low to moderate income. The apartments will be one and two bedroom units, with the building being home to artists, as well.

On Tuesday, Oppermann signed a development agreement between the city and Gorman & Company that will allow the $10.5 million project to move forward as soon as it receives approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

According to city officials, FEMA approval is pending on a floodplain levy wall that would protect the lofts from occasional high water on the Rock River. The historic flooding of 2018 inundated the Foremost factory and led to its eventual relocation. Jefferson currently has what Oppermann called a “preliminary opinion” from FEMA on what needs to be done in terms of flood wall protection at the factory that sits on the river’s immediate east bank.

“That is the last piece in this puzzle,” Oppermann said of the flood wall.

If FEMA approves the wall, construction on the lofts could begin in late August. The work is to be completed by Dec. 31, 2020.

“Since 2015, we’ve been working on this project and we expect it to be a catalyst for downtown redevelopment,” Oppermann said.

Outside the levy wall, according to the mayor, there will be an extension of the city’s Riverwalk from Rotary Park, which lies to the south of the proposed Candise Street Lofts site. To the north is the site of a proposed large, mixed-use development the city is hoping to place along the Rock River on land formerly occupied by the Jefferson County Highway Shop since the 1930s. This maintenance facility has been razed, with the department relocating to the southwest side of Jefferson near the Highway 26 bypass. The city is working as a partner with the county as Puerner Street site plans progress.

“The Candise Street Lofts will be a link in the Riverwalk,” Oppermann said.

Ted Matkom is the Wisconsin market president of Gorman & Company. He said his firm is anxious to tackle the Candise Street Lofts endeavor.

“This was a project that intrigued us, because it is converting a historic factory in downtown Jefferson into a new, updated residential space that will be catalytic to Jefferson’s downtown development,” Matkom said. “We will use every square foot of the former Foremost building as apartments, common space, or covered parking.”

The project comes with a few hurdles, however.

“Taking the property out of the floodplain was by far the biggest hurdle and we are doing this by building a levy wall,” Matkom said. “Finding the funding to build the levy wall, which was not originally part of our project, was a challenge.”

Matkom said there will be no new additions to the old factory and it will look much the same as it does now, except it will, of course, be updated and cleaned up considerably.

“The facade will be consistent with historic standards,” he said.

Matkom declared himself fortunate to work with partners who made the deal possible, including Jefferson City Administrator Tim Freitag, Bill Pinnow, Oppermann, the Jefferson Common Council and plan commission.

“This also would not have happened without the help of Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.,” he said. “This project will also be artists lofts, and have an interior space available for artists to come in and utilize as working incubator space.”

Freitag said the property has largely been vacant since 2012, when Foremost Buildings was relocated.

“Historically, the building has been purposed for industrial uses,” he said. “It is on the historical registers -- both state and federal. It is the last remaining, historical building associated with the Schweiger Furniture Co. -- it housed their upholstery operations.”

Re-purposing the building for residential use is the best practical way to preserve the historical property, according to Freitag.

“The building and its location on the river, just off downtown, is no longer suited for long-term industrial uses,” Freitag said. “At the same time, the city endeavors to create housing alternatives downtown and develop the Rock River waterfront.”