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Land owner would pay for interchange, services for industrial park

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Neil Johnson
December 5, 2013

TOWN OF FULTON—Local land owner Bill Watson grabbed a flight from California this week to give town of Fulton officials and residents details Thursday on a proposed industrial development he says could change life in Rock County.

Watson and Janesville developer Jeff Helgesen went public last month with plans to bring a 1,300-acre industrial park and a potential highway interchange to the intersection of County M and Interstate 90/39.

Watson even detailed a plan in which he would pay for the interchange, which he says state officials estimate would cost between $6 million and $15 million.

Helgesen, Watson and city of Milton officials have met with state Department of Transportation officials on the prospect of placing an interchange at County M and I-90/39. Helgesen has circulated conceptual drawings of what the industrial park would look like to media outlets. He has described how parts of it could be located in the towns of Fulton and Milton.

They have touted the development as having the potential to bring as many as 5,000 jobs to Rock County, and city of Milton officials talked last month about the prospect of annexing the development area outright.

Yet until a special meeting Thursday night at Fulton Town Hall, players in the proposed development hadn't gone to the towns of Fulton and Milton, where a 900-acre parcel for the development is located on the west side of the Interstate between County M and East Knudsen Road.

Watson, who lives in Menlo Park, Calif., but who owns Janesville-based Mulder Dairy Farms and hundreds of acres of land earmarked for the proposed development, offered an olive branch to the Fulton Town Board on Thursday for not initially coming to the towns about the industrial park.

With a development that stakeholders say could bring $250 million in extra tax base to whoever has municipal authority, Watson indicated he regretted not bringing the proposal to town of Fulton and Milton authorities sooner.

“You're watching all the warts and everything. Like being so stupid that I didn't talk to the (town of Fulton) Chairman (Evan Sayre) until yesterday,” Watson told the board during a presentation about the development.

Watson outlined the emerging plan, saying he has told the state he'd pay for the cost of putting an interchange in at County M and I-90/39.

Helgesen has said he plans to bankroll an Interstate Access Justification report, a prerequisite for getting an interchange at County M. The report could take 12 to 18 months and would wrap up as the DOT continues to work on designs for the planned I-90/39 lane expansion, which is set to start in 2015.

Watson indicated that his and Helgesen's talks in recent weeks with state and federal Department of Transportation authorities have given him hopes an interchange could be fast-tracked from a typical waiting period of a decade to a year or less.

“I'd like to build the interchange next spring and then populate the buildings,” Watson said.

What buildings? Watson says project developers have interest from two industries that would immediately locate in the development.

One tenant would work out of a 750,000-square-foot facility and employ as many as 1,300 people; the other would operate in a 300,000-square-foot facility and employ as many as 600, Watson said.

Eventually, the development could house 4 million to 5 million square feet of industrial space, Helgesen has said.

Watson would not tip his hand on what companies would immediately locate in the industrial park, but he said one prospective company is a dairy equipment manufacturer. He would not say whether the company was one on the forefront of a development deal.

Some residents had questions Thursday about the capacity of existing infrastructure and who would be liable for costs of developing such a vast project.

Watson said he's “uncomfortable” immediately asking a municipal government to fund new roads, railroad spurs and water and sewer service.

He said he's in the process of setting up a limited liability company, Landed Partners, which could pay for development costs.

“It's not a trick paying for those things (the interchange, railroad, new streets and water and sewer),” he said.

He said Landed Partners would be a multimillion-dollar, publicly traded startup. It would retain ownership of the industrial park and lease all buildings there.

Outside of whether the state and federal governments would approve an interchange at County M, the towns of Milton and Fulton have a lot to chew on over Watson's plans.

There's the issue of annexation, if the city of Milton chooses to go forward with it, and along with that comes potential landowner agreements and even voter referendums, according to state law—along with complex intergovernmental agreements that would need municipal approval.

The big question now, Watson said, is whether local residents and officials have the “political will” to allow such a large development on what is simple farmland.

“If this type of development goes in, the neighborhood changes, pure and simple,” he said.



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