To Jeanne Carpenter, Oregon isn’t a small town anymore.
And the incoming village president says it’s time to stop governing it like one.
“You ever hear the quote, ‘When you’re hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits?’” Carpenter asked.
She’s excited to focus on bigger projects, like workforce housing and establishing a new business park, rather than “rabbits” like the beekeeping ordinance, which has been buzzing around for at least a year.
“For the love of God, write it and pass it,” Carpenter told the Observer. “Give me the elephant; let’s go.”
That’s not to disparage urban beekeepers, she said – she thinks they’re great. Her point is the village doesn’t have an hour to discuss something it’s already decided.
“That’s part of governing like we’re a small town,” she said. “I’m not messing around with that anymore.”
Her No. 1 priority is increasing the business tax base by establishing the long-planned southeast business park on the east side of U.S. Hwy. 14. Even if it means everything else has to take a back seat “for a year or two,” Carpenter is convinced the Village of Oregon needs to make room for business to achieve fiscal balance.
The Alpine Business Park is nearly full, and Carpenter said the village has had to turn away some businesses that were interested in relocating here because there was nowhere to put them.
“We have to spread and share the tax base,” Carpenter said. “I’ve lived here for 20 years; my taxes keep going up.”
Another concern is making sure there’s housing for the employees of those future businesses. Carpenter’s employees at Firefly Coffeehouse and Artisan Cheese can’t afford to live in the village, she said, and she’s worried what effect that will have on Oregon’s identity.
She sees Oregon becoming a rich suburb of Madison, which she says threatens the diversity of voices that make up a thriving town.
One strategy Carpenter is eager to pursue is to work with developers who know how to take advantage of tax credits available for those who devote a percentage of the housing units for workforce housing.
Carpenter said she’s pushed for that for years, and it’s gone nowhere.
But now that she’s village president, she’s able to control the conversation.
Finding her place
Carpenter describes her leadership style using a tattered business card she carries around in her wallet.
“Stop talking,” it reads.
“The very first thing I do is listen. When you’re talking, you’re not learning anything,” she explained. “When I do talk, I try to make it collaborative.”
Though not exactly verbose at meetings now, Carpenter said she plans to talk even less as village president.
She envisions that role as “sort of like the closer.” She worked for years as a journalist, covering city and county governments in Idaho and more recently as an editor for an agricultural publication. She said she’s sat in a lot of board meetings and government meetings and has found the best leaders are the ones who, after making sure the right people have offered input, figure out a motion and move the meeting forward.
The biggest learning curve when she joined government in 2013, particularly on the Plan Commission, was “learning all the lingo,” she said, like CSM, CIP, CUP, etc. (That’s certified survey map, capital improvement plan and conditional use permit).
So Carpenter would write down every word she didn’t know, and fellow commissioner Scott Meier would tutor her after meetings. She grew into her role there and as the only woman on the board, and as one who isn’t in the field of building or designing buildings, offered a perspective she said was missing otherwise.
“They’re worried about straps and fasteners… (and) often I’m saying things like, ‘This building’s really ugly,” Carpenter explained.
She offered that feedback on the Jefferson Crossing building downtown, which started out “really boring,” but ended up with a tower on the end and the utility lines buried at Carpenter’s suggestion.
She has appointed herself to the Plan Commission once again, and said that’s where “a lot of the big decisions happen.”
At a Chamber of Commerce forum before being elected president, Carpenter sat on the stage at Headquarters Bar and Grill with the three other candidates for office and fielded questions about priorities and vision.
Naturally, the crowd of local businesspeople asked about the southeast business park.
That’s why she got in the race, Carpenter told them.
“It’s really hard to tell a business, ‘Sorry, we have nowhere for you to go,’” she said.
Village administrator Mike Gracz said there’s about 10 acres left in the Alpine Business Park, and in Carpenter’s opinion, the village has spent too much time trying to expand that park rather than establish a new one.
“We knew four years ago they didn’t want to sell” more land to the village to expand the business park, Carpenter told the Observer. That’s when the priority should have shifted to expanding across Hwy. 14, she said.
That proposition is costly, as it would require bringing municipal services like water, sewer and stormwater across the highway. Gracz said it has long been in the village’s future plans and almost happened a decade ago before disastrous flooding took the funding and staff time necessary to dedicate to that project.
Now that the village has chosen a full-time planner, whose appointment is contingent on an ongoing background check, Carpenter’s hope is that person will “hit the ground running” to start planning to get the business park up and going.
She said she’s not sure if that’s the priority of her fellow board members, but she’s going to keep “hammering” away at it until the project is underway.
When her two-year term is up, Carpenter said she hopes the village is on the path to building its first apartment building with affordable housing units, that the business park is under construction and that the new library is almost done.
She envisions an “environmentally sustainable” library that fits in with its neighborhood, envisioning pitched roofs, lots of natural light and a “woodsy” feel.
“We can’t put a big glass box there,” she said.
The village has several expensive projects coming up, including constructing a library and possibly a new senior center and Village Hall, two big road construction projects and establishing the southeast business park.
Carpenter said the borrowing doesn’t worry her, as the village’s debt level is about 33 percent of its equalized value, lower than its goal of 40 percent. She said it’s a priority to maintain the city’s credit rating, even if that means projects take longer.
Some things, she said, the village should get done expediently, and for those projects, she can take lessons she learned from Epic, where she was working when she moved here in 1998.
But she also knows some things need to take time, something she learned while traveling to dairy farms as an employee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
As the “pitch person” on a four-person team trying to convince a cheesemaker to switch to artisanal cheese production, she learned from her colleagues to spend the first 10 or 15 minutes of each visit making small talk with the farmer.
“I very quickly learned the way to get things done … is to build relationships with the people you’re dealing with,” Carpenter recalled.