Incremental Economic Development

In 2017 Heart of the City sponsored a 3-part series on economic development from the developers’ eye view. Investing in the place and people you know best makes sense if you know what you are doing. One can learn from those that do, network with those that do, and become one who does. It starts where you live. We heard the stories and insights of Jefferson County developers who have renovated buildings in Fort Atkinson and Jefferson, and contributions from attendants.

The conversation took place as follows:  January 27, Fort Atkinson Cold Spring Design featuring speakers Conor Nelan, Rachel Nelan, Craig Ellsworth, with tours of Cold Spring Design, the Fort Atkinson Club, and the Soulful Toad, all in downtown Fort Atkinson;  February 23, Jefferson Area Business Center; March 8, Jefferson, Tea Tree Wellness Studio

northeast-main-fort riverwalk-beauty-spot

Heart of the City believes in an incremental approach to economic development. Cities have been building incrementally for thousands of years successfully. Building places in small steps and with little additions that are carefully timed makes sense. City dwellers learned to deliver the new spaces that a settlement needs and in a manner that can be absorbed comfortably and dynamically.

After World War II, America embarked on a huge experiment to build cities differently. Instead of adding on bit by bit, they went large scale, opening up acres of land that could be accessed primarily by automobile. These lovely places required much more extensive, and therefore expensive, public infrastructure investment but generated such economic activity that businesses boomed and payback seemed assured. It was wildly successful for its first few generations, resulting in a kind of lifestyle that became the new, and comfortable, norm.

However, with the passage of several generations, the downsides of this large-scale development have started to show. Cities of all sizes and across all states are experiencing budget crises, even bankruptcies, as road and fresh water and sewer water infrastructure ages and there is nowhere near the tax base to maintain or replace it. The internet and on-line shopping have changed patterns of behavior in completely unexpected ways making brick-and-mortar retail increasingly tenuous. A build up of greenhouse gases caused by our modern transportation, housing, and farming methods is disrupting our weather patterns.

Unfortunately, our building codes and city ordinances make this change back to commonsense all but impossible.

Some entrepreneurial and hard-working developers have managed to overcome increasing odds, however, to still make a business case for small town development in a manner that is good for all.

This experiment is proving to have downsides that are gargantuan. Time to go back to our traditions, of building what we need, when we need it, in a modest manner that is sustainable.

On Monday May 23 2016 we hosted Jim Kumon, executive director of the Incremental Development Alliance at the Community Room in the library. We invited local and regional people to hear his introductory and organizational talk in hopes of bringing an incremental development “boot camp” here. You can view Beth’s introduction, Jim’s presentation and closing remarks.


“Born from a blend of grassroots activists, local entrepreneurs, business owners and small scale real estate developers, the Incremental Development Alliance (IncDev or IDA) will focus on developing the know-how to MacGyver our collective way to better places at the neighborhood scale.

To accomplish this as an organization, IncDev will:

  • Train and coach individuals, civic groups and government agencies to develop their local economy and real estate
  • Pilot projects to test techniques with local communities to tackle specific challenges
  • Connect a continent of neighborhood-level doers to celebrate success and share field notes through opportunistic alliances”

Incremental Development Alliance encourages sharing of ideas on the Facebook page Small Developers/Builders.

The summary of this introductory talk:

Twenty-eight people attended, from 6 different communities in Wisconsin. Represented were city staff, elected officials, developers, realtors, architects, planners, economic development agencies. Jim spoke and took questions for approximately 75 minutes. His message of why and how to bootstrap microscale infill building was well received.
The talk was filmed. If you care to watch request to see it through reply email. Afterwards a group of ten stayed to organize. You are welcome to join this team. We’ll be meeting monthlyish from now until the workshop in early Spring, 2017.

This fall, we will need about $1500 in sponsorship or ticket sales to host an in-depth lecture, meant to further spread the word about need for, and promise of, entrepreneurial development in this region. Ultimately, we want to find 75 people to take a training course in the nuts and bolts of infill micro scale development.

We are now building a network of

  • Builders/developers
  • Lenders/investors
  • Main Street/historic development district advocates
  • Architects/designers
  • Municipal regulatory/zoning & ordinances staff
  • Planners
  • Economic development agencies

If you have names to add to this list, let us know and we will link you to the shared spreadsheet being crowd built.

Another step is to find the resource to organize/sponsor the workshop. Jim suggested getting funding and finding sponsorships from regional economic development agencies who understand the promise of workforce training, capacity building, and jobs development IncDev holds. The committee will meet with Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium, WEDC and the Fort Chamber of Commerce to see what suggestions and leadership they can provide.

We’ll work with our committee members from Madison, Milwaukee, Monroe, Beloit, Jefferson etc to network. It will take pooling resources to reach the population needed and organize the two-stage event. Jim promised some good, shareable verbiage and a better website soon to help us market the concept.

After the talk, Jim took the time to walk through town with us. He was impressed. He stressed the economic importance of downtown, even if currently in a transition phase. Some specifics he pointed out were:

  • street trees can help us return the balance of the height of the buildings to the width of the span between them-this proportionality is part of the aesthetic that makes places feel safe and inviting for walking and conducting business.
  • we were lucky not to have many “missing teeth” in the facade of buildings.
  • we were lucky that Main Street’s structures were all two story.
  • having just five blocks to our Main Street commercial area was a great scale for revitalization- not too much or too little.
  • knocking down buildings to add parking is counterproductive. There is plenty of parking. We need to work on access in different ways.
  • potential exists to share commercial spaces to get doors open again.
  • the riverwalk could host some commercial activity.
  • the north side, undeveloped river frontage is also loaded with value once we get Main Street revitalized
  • issue overnight on street parking permits in order to put the Sherman parking lot into play as buildable lot while simultaneously narrowing the road so drivers slow down and safety is improved
  • North Water Street could deliver a big return quickly if we focused effort on narrowing it and beautifying it from Bienfangs to the municipal building lot.
  • if we can jump start Main Street, the cross street areas will automatically rise in value as well.
  • building out beyond Main Street should be of secondary or tertiary priority as Main Street revitalization is the most productive for City help and vitality.