Once Highway 26 is routed around town, will Milton turn into Bypass-ville?
Jefferson's noon whistle was like a reverse cattle call.
Customers—some local, some from miles south in Janesville and even Beloit—on a recent Friday flocked downtown to Wedl's Hamburger Stand at 200 E. Racine St.
The stand serves up double and triple all-beef hamburgers, loaded with cheese and dripping with grease. You can smell the grilled onions from across the Racine Street bridge a quarter mile away.
Everyone who's eaten at Wedl's knows the tiny burger shack opens in late March and serves grilled rib-eye steak sandwiches on Mondays.
Milton officials warily eying construction of the bypass around Milton's east side might find solace in the continued success of Jefferson's downtown hamburger stand one year after Jefferson's bypass was completed.
"You know how hard it is to work across the street from that place and not get a burger every day?" said Larry Gosdeck, 71, who's owns Snappy's Comic Book Shop across the street at 133 E. Racine St.
Gosdeck has run Snappy's for 22 years, and he said Wedl's has been at the corner of Racine Street and Center Avenue for at least that long.
The corner used to be the main drag, the heart of town, before the Highway 26 bypass was finished about a year ago.
The four-lane bypass routes the bulk of traffic around Jefferson, pulling most travelers and semitrailer truck traffic off Main Street, which runs straight through downtown in this city of 8,000.
Still the heart of town
In a way, Wedl's corner is still the heart of Jefferson. Traffic, mostly local and foot traffic, hasn't dried up at all, locals said.
"The bypass hasn't stopped customers from coming to downtown Jefferson if they've got a reason to come to downtown Jefferson. A lot of people say that reason is that hamburger stand," said Janet M. Werner, executive director of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce.
Werner said the bypass funnels the city's biggest problem—truck traffic—around the city. With the exception trucks going to the Tyson and Nestle-Purina plants on the city's south side, heavy truck traffic now steers clear of the city.
It's a no-brainer, Werner said:
"People feel more comfortable coming into downtown Jefferson to shop, now. Downtown, the truck traffic used to be terrible. Those trucks, they never stopped in downtown for anything. They were just passing through. They just made other drivers too uncomfortable or scared to stop and get out downtown."
State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Teri Schopp said clearing truck traffic around cities is one of the main goals for the state's multi-million dollar Highway 26 expansion project, which has involved bypasses and lane expansions at Watertown, Jefferson and Fort Atkinson.
Schopp has said the same logic applies to the pending Milton Highway 26 bypass, which could be open to traffic this fall.
The Milton bypass will funnel about 16,000 vehicles east around Milton, population 5,500. It will all but eliminate truck traffic through town and minimize backups at railroad tracks that split Milton in half.
While some Milton merchants worry the traffic-funneling effect of the bypass could crimp their retail sales, Milton House Executive Director Cori Olson has said she's looking forward to fewer large trucks passing the historic inn, which houses the city's historical society and history museum.
Semitrailer trucks rumble within a couple feet of the Milton House, shaking and rattling the building's original timbers and grout outer walls.
All the same, the Milton House relies on passersby, who will not be a sure thing once the bypass is in place.
Now, the bulk of the museum's visitors are elementary school students who tour one of the state's only underground railroad sites, important havens for escaped slaves fleeing the pre-Civil War south.
Whether those students are enough to keep the Milton House thriving and open remains to be seen,
Dianne Hrobsky, executive vice president of the Fort Atkinson Chamber of Commerce, said the lack of trucks resulted in more foot traffic and more customers to restaurants and specialty shops along Main Street in downtown Fort Atkinson.
The city has had its bypass, which skirts three miles around the outside of the city, since 1994—long enough for visitors to stop getting lost and long enough for most locals to stop complaining.
Foot traffic and the downtown apartment market have improved steadily in the past four years, Hrobsky said. People enjoy being able to hoof it and shop locally, she said.
More pedestrians, tacos
Los Agaves, a restaurant in Delavan, has a propane-powered taco truck stationed streetside in downtown Fort Atkinson. On a recent Friday evening, it had a line of customers stacked on the sidewalk overlooking the river.
"It's a great spot, here," said Kevin Valadez, who was standing near a line of five customers waiting for orders.
Valadez is the son of Los Agaves owner Francisco Valadez. The junior high-aged boy was interpreting as The Gazette interviewed Francisco Valadez, who does not speak English. On weekend nights, he said, dozens of customers an hour stop at the truck for tongue and steak tacos with green salsa and Mexican Coca-Cola made with real cane sugar.
"People come down here for a big reason: our food," Kevin Valadez said.
Hrobsky said that couldn't happen without a solid base of regular foot traffic downtown.
She said Milton officials and businesses would do well to ask members of chambers of commerce in bypassed communities along Highway 26 how they handle economic development and marketing in a post-bypass world.
"There are no deep, dark trade secrets around here," Hrobsky said. "We're all in this together."
Los Agaves' taco truck was parked all last summer in a parking lot on Milton's east-side business district. It was during the height of traffic interruption as contractors worked on the lane expansion between Janesville and Milton, which is part of the Highway 26 expansion and is linked to the Milton bypass.
Despite road construction congestion, customer traffic in Milton was "very great business" for the taco truck, Valadez said.
He pulled the truck out of Milton last fall in part because businesses in Milton complained about the mobile truck being "unfair" competition, he said. The restaurant just wants to be successful, not to make people upset, he said.
Milton has its own plans
Milton has been working for four years on a plan to turn Goodrich Park into a city center geared for biking, walking and family activities.
Goodrich Park borders the Parkview Drive Business District, the city's east-side downtown.
The city is poised this spring to begin construction on a youth splash park that could be ready for use by early July, according to a city timeline on the project.
The hope, Milton City administrator Jerry Schuetz has said, is that the splash park will attract a large number of young families from the 12,000 to 15,000 residents in Janesville's north subdivisions and summer tourists who populate the RV parks, campgrounds and semi-rural township areas just outside Milton.
The thinking, city officials say, is that those families will help make up for the thousands of vehicles a day who will take the bypass instead of passing by the east side downtown.
City officials hope those families and local customers will become aware of the restaurants, stores and shops on Parkview Drive and that they'll spend time and money in those establishments.
Meanwhile, the Milton Public Library is in talks with the city over a large-scale expansion in the Shaw Municipal Building near downtown. The expansion would double the library's size and create expansive areas for public and family use.
Also, crews will start work this week on the Parker YMCA, which the YMCA of North Rock County is building on the city's far south extension of Parkview Drive. The project could be completed this November, YMCA CEO Tom Den Boer has said.
Sign of changing times?
Milton owns land for development in its business park along Highway 59 and the future Highway 26 bypass. That creates an avenue for the city to allow off-site business signs that could direct motorists on the bypass to Milton businesses they would not otherwise see.
The problem: The city's sign ordinance does not allow businesses to have offsite signs along city rights of way.
That's something an ad hoc city sign committee is suggesting should change, but the city council has yet to jump on board with the measure.
Jolynn Burder, the new exective director of the Milton Area Chamber of Commerce Industry and Tourism, said city officials and chamber members who support offsite business signs are "making good ground on those plans," but the city council has yet to review or approve the plans.
City officials could soon define the junction of the Highway 26 bypass and Highway 59 as the "entrance" to Milton. Newly-elected mayor Brett Frazier told The Gazette the Highway 26/59 corridor will be an important place to define the "face" of Milton.
Alderman Don Vruwink said he favors allowing businesses to be allowed to advertise along the bypass, but Alderman David Adams has repeatedly voiced worries that the change could allow the city to become a "neon jungle" of bright, flashing business signs.
Cut off from customers?
Offsite business signs might not help Sal's Landscaping and Garden Center at 5164 N. Highway 26 just south of Milton.
Sal Gomez said his business, which has operated since 2004, used to have an entrance drive along Highway 26, but the state Department of Transportation closed that access last fall while it was finishing Highway 26 work between Janesville and Milton.
Sal's also used to have an access along Bingham Road, but the state closed that access, too.
"They completely shut us down both ways," said Gomez, wiping his face and pushing his black framed reading glasses up onto his forehead.
To get to Sal's, motorists traveling north and south on Highway 26—including landscaping suppliers—have to take a two-mile detour through residential subdivisions and between one and five roundabouts.
"It's a pretty big inconvenience for people just to get in the gate," said Gomez's wife and Sal's co-owner, Brenda Gomez.
The couple say they have "no idea" yet how lack of Highway 26 access will affect their business, but if their core customer base—Highway 26 travelers—dries up, they could be forced to close their garden center or move it to a more accessible location, they said.
It could cost "a million" dollars to move the business somewhere else, Sal Gomez said.
Customer surveys have show about half the business's new and repeat customers are tied to traffic passing on Highway 26.
Luckily for Sal's, the other half of their customers hire the business for lawn care and maintenance. This spring, Sal's is expanding to include organic pesticide and chemical-free lawn care services.
"This is kind of like a test. We hope this works. If not, I'll still do landscaping and maintenance, but our retail could shut down."