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  • Milwaukee Business Journal


For decades, the Chrysler plant was one of Kenosha's largest employers. Now, the city's planning an innovation district on the 107 vacant acres it left behind

At its height, the Chrysler factory in Kenosha employed more than 10,000 workers. More than a decade since its closure, environmental cleanup of the contaminated site is largely complete and the 107-acre parcel sits empty.

Aiming to retain and draw young talent, the city is now planning a mixed-use innovation district that could cost up to $1 billion over more than a decade and would include technology incubators and offices, education institutions, businesses, housing and green space. With more than 1 million square feet of planned commercial space, the project could create 3,000 to 5,000 jobs over time and attract $500 million or more of private investment, Kenosha director of city development Tim Casey said.

The planned district, known as the Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood (KIN), is "going to change the future of Kenosha," Kenosha Ald. Dominic Ruffalo said in early April before the city's Common Council voted to adopt a master plan for the project.

From using sustainable energy sources to leveraging an urban planning model designed to encourage idea-makers to collide, the city and others involved in KIN's planning process are aiming to weave innovation into every aspect of the development.

For more than a century, Kenosha was an automobile manufacturing town. In 1902, a car factory opened under Thomas B. Jeffery Co. and over the years changed hands through a series of sales and mergers with owners including Nash Motors, American Motors Co. (AMC) and Chrysler Corp. In its final decades in operation, the plant no longer produced automobiles but continued to manufacture engines.

"We always had an American Motors car when we were growing up, and that's not unusual," said Godfrey & Kahn SC attorney Arthur Harrington, who grew up in Kenosha and later represented the city in a legal battle regarding the site. "It just permeated the whole city of Kenosha and its culture. ... It was the dominant employer, not only Kenosha but in that whole southeast (Wisconsin) region."

The plant was shuttered in 2010, a year after Chrysler declared bankruptcy during the Great Recession.

"This was a huge, huge blow to the city of Kenosha," Harrington said.

A fight over environmental remediation responsibilities ensued involving the property owner Old Carco Liquidation Trust, the property's first lien holder JP Morgan Chase Bank, federal and state environmental agencies, and the city of Kenosha.

Ultimately, the stakeholders reached a settlement agreement in 2011 in which the trust agreed to raze the buildings on the site, the city took ownership of the property and the federal government provided $10 million to fund cleanup efforts overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The site had contaminated soil and groundwater. To date, more than $40 million in federal, state and local dollars, as well as money from the bankruptcy trust, have been spent on the site cleanup, Casey said.

Today, the soil is in good shape and the only remaining issue is a groundwater problem that's being treated with long-term monitoring that won't impact redevelopment efforts, Harrington said.

In 2016, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian was elected for the second time — he served his first term from 1992 to 2008 — and he began focusing on a redevelopment plan for the former Chrysler site. His early goal was to prevent young residents from leaving the city of about 100,000 by creating jobs that would make them stay, he said.

Initially, Antaramian envisioned a research and development park but in response to advice from innovation economic development firm Waymaker Group, the city began considering an innovation district instead.

Innovation districts are "geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with startups, business incubators and accelerators," according to a 2014 Brookings Institution report. Unlike many sprawling research parks, innovation districts are "physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office and retail," the report stated.

Kenosha leaders involved in the Chrysler site redevelopment began touring some of the roughly 100 innovation districts that are in various stages of development around the country, including Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis, 16 Tech in Indianapolis and Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., Casey said.

Throughout this process, the mayor and his team formed a vision for KIN. One key takeaway was that housing should be included, Casey said. Research parks built decades ago, including the Milwaukee County Research Park in Wauwatosa, are now adding apartments, hotels and other mixed-use elements, he said.

"They're going in now and saying ... 'There's a more vibrant environment here if we have ... more of a live, work, play, kind of environment," Casey said. "We have the opportunity to do that from the outset because we're starting with a clean slate."

As plans for KIN come together, the city is thinking about how to integrate multiple educational institutions into the innovation district and into the surrounding residential neighborhoods, which have some of the largest minority populations in the area, Antaramian said.

The goal is to create clear education and career pathways, including for students of color, and to ultimately attract employers and entrepreneurship opportunities to keep them in the region. The city has been talking to at least one corporation so far that's interested in coming to KIN, Antaramian said.

In what may be a "pie-in-the-sky" idea, the city is exploring the use of geothermal energy to power heating and cooling systems throughout KIN, Antaramian said. The aim is to lead by example in creating an environment-friendly development. "Both at the city level and on the Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood board, there's a real commitment to sustainable energy," Casey said. "You're going to see us encouraging, if not requiring, very energy-efficient buildings. We're going to look for maximum use of solar."

At the end of 2020, the city hired the design and engineering firm SmithGroup to lead the master planning process for KIN. Given that the site is adjacent to Kenosha's Uptown neighborhood, one of the areas most impacted by the protests after the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake, there was "a lot of pressure on this project to get it right," SmithGroup principal Tom Rogers said.

The firm held three in-person public meetings and conducted online surveys to get input from more than 1,500 residents, business owners and other stakeholders.

The result was a plan approved earlier this year that calls for 800 to 1,300 residential units including townhomes, condos and apartments; up to 650,000 square feet for technology and entrepreneurship incubators and office space; as much as 250,000 square feet each for educational institutions and commercial space; up to 200,000 square feet for medical offices; and 20 acres of green space.

"We're treating this as an innovation neighborhood, not a business park," Rogers said. "It's making sure that it is serving a 24-hour community, not a nine-to-five one."

While the city has been leading the redevelopment planning process in partnership with consultants, it ultimately intends for a nonprofit entity to carry it forward, Casey said. The Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood Inc. was established last year to be that vehicle. The organization recently received its 501(c)(3) status, is in the process of selecting a marketing firm and intends to establish a banking relationship, said Casey, who is a member of the KIN Inc. board.

The city will transfer initial funds to KIN Inc. and the organization will also receive funding from a local charitable trust, Casey said.

Eventually, KIN Inc. will hire an executive director and paid staff, said KIN Inc. board chair and University of Wisconsin-Parkside Chancellor Debbie Ford. The board will work with the Kenosha Area Business Alliance and the regional economic development organization Milwaukee 7, as well as with developers and commercial real estate brokers to fill out the development, Casey said.

Local educational institutions including UW-Parkside, Gateway Technical College, Carthage College and Herzing University have been involved in the planning process and are expected to have a presence in KIN.

KIN could take 15 to 20 years to fully build out and could cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion, Casey said. It's being funded by federal and state grants and local funds, including through a $53 million tax incremental financing.

SmithGroup is contracted to build the development's first roads — 28th Avenue and 56th Street — which could be completed by fall 2023, Rogers said. It's also working on a public plaza, designed to be an outdoor community space in the heart of KIN.

The first planned KIN structures are a new building for LakeView Technology Academy, a high school in the Kenosha Unified School District currently located in Pleasant Prairie that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and a roughly 60,000-square-foot innovation center, which will serve as an incubator space for startups. The city also is considering a second, food-focused incubator facility, Antaramian said.

The city received $15 million in federal stimulus funding from the state of Wisconsin to fund those projects, including $1 million for the school and $14 million for the innovation center, according to a March announcement. It also received $990,000 in government funding to establish gBETA, a startup accelerator program operated by gener8tor Management LLC that's expected to be housed in the innovation center.

Although the state has been supportive with funding, it should do more to provide strong educational and economic opportunities for young residents, Antaramian said.

"We need to do this in more than just Kenosha," Antaramian said. "The state needs to step up and start looking at how we can do this type of activity in more than one community."


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