Common Wealth Development executive director Marianne Morton was in the Miami International Airport on April 7 last year when she got the call that the citywide referendum allowing her organization to renovate the Garver Feed Mill in Olbrich Park into an arts incubator had passed with an overwhelming 77 percent of the vote. At the time, Morton was about to embark on a much-needed vacation after shepherding the arts proposal through more than two years of public discussion, from convincing a city selection committee to choose the incubator plan to campaigning for the public's vote.
While it may seem like Morton and the arts incubator plan have been missing in action ever since then, Common Wealth Development has spent much of the past 14 months hunkered down with several neighborhood, arts and city advisors, quietly working on the plan. Now, the fruits of that work are beginning to become publicly visible as the project goes before the city's Landmarks Commission for a certificate of approval Monday.
"We have been doing a lot of hard work on the unglamorous details that should move the project forward and turn it into an exciting reality," Morton says.
The $15 million incubator is an ambitious project, aiming to provide affordable studio, performance, classroom and gallery space for local working artists as well as another venue to view art. Similar projects exist elsewhere, such as the well-known Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Va., but the Garver facility would be the first in the Madison area.
"I think it will be a very dynamic building," Morton says, explaining that it will be a place for many different people to interact given its connections to the Capital City Bike Trail, Olbrich Botanical Gardens and the greater Atwood neighborhood, the last of which has become a hub for the city's arts community.
Morton is also quick to note the economic impact of the project, which she says will create 102 construction jobs, up to 150 permanent jobs at the incubator itself and possibly spur development in the Atwood Avenue area.
Efforts to renovate the Garver Feed Mill, a 104-year-old building that was once home to a sugar beet factory as well an animal feed producer, have been talked about since 1989, but did not take place in earnest in late 2003 during Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's first term. A committee of local parks and neighborhood officials came together in 2006 and worked for nearly 18 months before choosing Common Wealth Development, an East-Side nonprofit specializing in affordable housing and business incubators, to turn the feed mill into an arts incubator. Because of the mill's location near Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona, a city ordinance required a referendum for the re-development.
Before the Garver Feed Mill could become anything close to a haven for local artists, however, Morton and Common Wealth Development had to develop a detailed site plan, including working with city officials and arts leaders on making the space usable for artists and the public and figuring out how to best preserve a historic building once described as "melting." Plans submitted to the Landmarks Commission indicate much of the exterior brick has been retained, though a north entrance would be reconfigured to make up for fire damage sustained in 2001.
The building would also get a new roof and interior, two factors that city planner Archie Nicholette says may be less important to the Landmarks Commission because of the advanced decay of those elements.
"When you can restore, restore. When you can't, then you need to use modern materials that complement and match what the historical appearance was," he says. "Obviously, you're not going to restore the roof to what it was. You just have to make it look and appear to be what you would expect" in a historic building.
City planning staff have recommended approval of the plans, but commission members will still have the final say at Monday's meeting.
In addition to historic preservation, much of the past year has been spent evaluating the building for energy efficiency improvements and environmental remediation. A survey completed late last year indicated some relatively minor environmental issues to resolve, from lead paint and asbestos removal to constructing a temporary roof to prevent further decay. Some of that work, including cleaning out pits that had once been filled with molasses for making feed and eventually became filled with garbage, has already been completed, but much lies ahead.
"Honestly, the worst part was the smell," says Dan Rolfs, Madison's community development project manager. "The guys who worked on that, they're working in the sewers. They said after that, they'd rather work in the sewers because the smell wasn't as bad. But it's clean now and it had to be done."
While progress has been made over the past year, one question that remains up in the air is funding the project, which Morton has long said would not be done with any city taxpayer funds. Common Wealth Development has been working to leverage as much federal and state funding as possible and will soon be applying to Madison for about $520,000 in state remediation funds to take care of some of the environmental cleanup at the once-industrial site, matching that with $280,000 of their own.
Morton says they will also likely apply for state historic tax credits after the project gets Landmarks Commission approval, as well as possible federal New Market Tax Credits.
As the project gets further into the city approval process, the difficult task of raising private funds during the recession can begin.
"I think it's a hard time to ask for money," says Ald. Marsha Rummel, who represents the area, but she adds, "I think the arts community is different. It has local and national pots of money that aren't the same for other" fundraising efforts.
For now, Common Wealth has plenty of time to get its financial house in order, with the incubator not expected to open until early 2013. In the meantime, Morton says she expects to continue working through the city process, including visits to the Parks Commission and Plan Commission, and working with neighbors and artists to refine the interior plans for the building.
"Because it's a multi-year project, we want people to see momentum, that things are happening and to keep communication going," Morton says. "We hope to have some more engaging activities as we move along."