Less than one month ago, the Redevelopment Authority’s riverfront redevelopment project inched forward after being largely stalled for much of the past year.

When the Common Council voted Feb. 27 to provide the RDA with funding to demolish most of the Highway Trailer complex at 501 E. South St., it represented a step toward realizing the long-awaited riverfront redevelopment project.

But the funding decision was far from unanimous, with three alders voting against and another expressing strong reservations.

The vote also represented a compromise, as the council reinforced its desire to preserve – at least for now – a part of the complex known as the blacksmith shop.

Stoughton has a history of salvaging historic buildings, most notably the City Hall, Stoughton Opera House, Stoughton Area Youth Center and Luke Stoughton House. Now, the 100-plus-year-old, 14,000-square-foot blacksmith shop is being considered to possibly join them.

But a decision on whether it’s possible, likely or realistic could still be months away, and it remains to be seen whether that holds up the rest of the riverfront project – a potential economic driver that seems universally desired in the community.

Many old buildings are demolished unceremoniously. For example, there was no dissent over taking down the six-building MillFab complex and the Carpet Warehouse building next to Highway Trailer. Others, such as the power plant building on South Fourth Street along the river and some of the old warehouses near the railroad tracks, draw private interest for their aesthetics, materials or nostalgia.

The debate over Highway Trailer took many people by surprise, not least of which was the RDA, which had owned the building for five years before voting to remove it to clear the way for redevelopment. Over the next several months, the city lost its master developer, closed East South Street for safety reasons and waited for updated cost estimates while it considered what to do with the building complex.

Now that there is at least agreement on the largest, most unsafe part of the building, the city faces a decision on the blacksmith shop, which some would like to keep and others would like to destroy. The building remains under a demolition moratorium.

Eventually, supporters of preserving the building and of demolishing it alike envision a new development linking the city’s downtown with Mandt Park, featuring a riverwalk and public spaces – but no one knows when that might happen and whether the blacksmith shop will be part of it.

A shift in thinking

The recent history of the redevelopment project involves a lot of planning that was halted by the council’s demolition moratorium.

The RDA was established in 2007 and has been acquiring blighted properties in the roughly 12-acre area along the Yahara River since 2012, when it paid $150,000 to buy the Highway Trailer property from Stoughton Trailers. It acquired the six-acre MillFab industrial property for $750,000 in 2016.

The RDA’s 2009 Railroad Corridor Neighborhood Plan led to the creation of a tax-increment district project plan in January 2010, allowing the city greater flexibility with taxpayer money in order to encourage development that would eventually pay back the debt.

But between that time and when the RDA sought proposals for a master developer in the fall of 2016, the composition of the council changed.

The RDA chose Tanesay Development Inc. last February to serve as master developer, and a month later it voted to demolish the Highway Trailer complex, which the council blocked. Though the moratorium was soon reduced to the blacksmith shop in April 2017, the debate over saving the complex continued.

A three-day design planning exercise – known as a charrette – was delayed from April to June, and while it was well-attended, master developer Mark Geall withdrew from the project in July, citing the council’s inability to find common ground.

Some of that “indecision” still lingers, as indicated by one-third of the council last month voting against funding the Highway Trailer demolition.

Where to from here?

Members of the RDA and the council differ over whether the blacksmith shop should go or stay as part of the redevelopment project.

One of the city’s leading preservationists, Peggy Veregin, chair of the Landmarks Commission, spoke against the council’s decision to provide $750,000 to raze the Highway Trailer complex. She said the entire complex, including the blacksmith shop, is eligible for Local Landmark status, which provides a level of protection from demolition.

“To say this building has no historic significance is just silly,” she said.

Others, including council president and mayoral candidate Tim Swadley, initially supported saving the complex but over time have come to believe the community does not want to keep the building, particularly if it means holding back the redevelopment project.

The police department has been monitoring the fenced-in site to make sure civilians don’t enter it, but the monitoring is not 24 hours every day.

“We consider the whole complex a risk,” police chief Greg Leck said during a Feb. 27 council meeting.

A vocal contingent in the community advocates saving the blacksmith shop, however. RDA members Roger Springman and Regina Hirsch are among them.

Springman reported that the architect who worked with Tanesay Development and attended the charrette, Mark Ernst of Engberg Anderson Architects, told him of “three developers who could have an interest in a building like the blacksmith shop.”

He said with its open floor plan and large size, the building has the potential to become a space for public events, a farmers’ market or some other kind of public market, among other things.

So far, the RDA has not attempted to market the building or plan for a feasibility study. And without a realistic assessment of the cost to restore the structure – which might not be practical until the larger complex around it is gone – it’s anyone’s guess as to the building’s future.

Historic preservation architect Arlan Kay’s told the Hub the key to the building’s future ought to be simple.

“Nothing saves a building more than having a use for it,” he said.

Contact Bill Livick at bill.livick@wcinet.com