As much as we all hoped for 2020’s mess to disappear on Jan. 1, the reality is we aren’t quite rid of it.
Unfortunately, our Fitchburg Star headlines will reflect that for at least the beginning of 2021. But with COVID-19 vaccine distribution underway, there’s a sense of renewed hope that this year we might glimpse what “normal” used to look like.
But we’ll be following other stories too, ones that aren’t necessarily related to the pandemic.
One we know about is more construction along Fish Hatchery Road.
Another is the discussion of redrawing aldermanic lines from the 2020 federal census and city growth – with the expected addition of part of the Town of Madison in 2022 in mind.
Also likely to be worth following are the unveiling of new schools in the Oregon and Verona districts, the possible creation of community centers in the northern neighborhoods of the city, attempts to reduce flooding on the southern and western borders of the city and the addition of a potential new grocery store near three others on the southwest side.
1. The new world
The largest unknown — that we know of — will be how the pandemic ends and how it will continue to change what life looks like.
Will Festa Italia or Concerts in the Park return this year? Will audiences watch their students perform on the court, fields and the theatre stages again? Will the Class of 2021 get an in-person graduation ceremony?
Will this be the year where we can embrace one another and not worry about the safety of those around us?
We couldn’t possibly begin to predict what will change for Fitchburgers and the rest of the world in 2021, but what we know is that we’ll be following what we hope is the end of the pandemic and the return to life as we sort of knew it.
Two of the districts are already planning for a return to in-person learning for all. School will look significantly different for those students who were last educated in a building in mid-March. Social distancing and masks will be a given, and their classrooms will be a combination of in-person and virtual learning as teachers and staff educate concurrently to both their virtual and in-person students.
The largest hurdle for school districts, though, will be making sure their plans are operationally solvent. Without enough bus drivers and substitute staff, maintaining an educational system that reduces disruption for students will be a challenge.
Then there are the questions of other aspects of life that were once celebrated prior to the pandemic.
If large-scale events, such as Kids Building WI or the Agora Art Fair, can be held this year there could be changes to make the events more hygiene-focused, and it’ll be interesting to see what people’s comfort level of crowds is.
Businesses will need to continue to adapt to the virus and eventually adapt away from it to operations like what they had prior to March 2020. It’s likely, however, that some things they have implemented as safety precautions could stick around long term.
2. More Fish Hatch construction
They say that only two things are certain – death and taxes – but you can add more Fish Hatchery Road construction this spring to that list.
In 2021, that construction will be the only construction project on a main thoroughfare.
Last year’s work was particularly painful in that regard, as not only was Fish Hatchery Road just south of the Beltline ripped up and down to one lane each way, but parts of McKee Road on either side of Verona Road was nothing but gravel and orange cones throughout the spring, summer and early fall.
This year’s work will rebuild the southern half of the project from Traceway Drive to Brendan Avenue just south of McKee Road.
In 2019, the city split the Fish Hatchery Road project into two segments after staff and alders determined the original bids for it based on an aggressive one-year timeline were too costly.
The $20.3 million project is being equally funded by the city and the county, with an additional $572,000 from the City of Madison for its portion near the Beltline.
In addition to reconstruction of the road, Phase 2 of the project will also include the construction of a bridge on the edge of the Nine Springs Golf Course property for a multi-use path. That project was a difficult one to plan, as the city needed to go to court to get a decades-old deed restriction lifted.
3. New schools for Fitchburg students get unveiled
The Verona Area School District and Oregon School District each opened new school facilities this year, including one in Fitchburg.
Both, however, came without the celebrations that had been planned or the large number of students that would normally be expected.
OSD opened Forest Edge Elementary School, which serves students in grades K-6, in Fitchburg’s far northwest corner last fall. Adjacent to the school building sits the district’s new school forest, which will be used for future environmental education for students of all ages.
And VASD opened its new $182 million high school campus on the far side of the City of Verona.
In both cases, the schools have not hosted anywhere near the numbers they were built for, with FES taking some K-2 students in the first semester and the high school housing only staff and students who were using the district’s “plus” learning opportunities and coaching contact days.
FES is expected to have all six grade levels by the end of January, and Verona has planned to bring many more high school students in – attending two days a week each – for hybrid learning starting in early February.
VASD shifted around students at all of its other sites last fall, too – whether through new attendance area boundaries, moved building locations, or both. Many Fitchburg students, especially in the northwest corner of the city, found themselves attending a new school for the start of the 2020-21 school year.
But because of the pandemic, the fanfare and excitement over opening new schools for Fitchburg children to attend was muted. In the coming year, as it potentially becomes safer to gather, we can expect that the respective districts will bring the celebrations and tours off of the back-burner and consider holding open house events – even if they’re sizably smaller than first intended.
4. Changes to city aldermanic districts
Two years after the city moved voting sites because of its new fire stations, many voters will again have new polling places — and some will be in new voting districts altogether.
The City of Fitchburg will start the process of aldermanic redistricting in 2021.
An ad-hoc redistricting committee will start recruiting in January and convene as early as April. The committee will consist of six residents – one from each of the districts and two at-large – who will help city staff redraw the aldermanic ward boundaries using updated information from the 2020 federal census.
The process is not meant to be a political exercise, unlike the increasingly common gerrymandering state legislatures across the country have used to redraw lines for decades.
As the city redraws its aldermanic districts, it will not be able to take into consideration the 1,500 people who will become Fitchburg residents in October 2022, when the Town of Madison dissolves, during redistricting decisions in 2021. That means another round of redistricting is likely to take place in late 2022 and early 2023.
Concurrently with the redistricting process, the city will likely start to look for a more permanent District 1 polling place that moves it back into the Jamestown neighborhood. The District 1 polling place had been moved to Fire Station No. 2 on Marketplace Drive outside the district in 2017, which alders claimed made it difficult for residents with little to no access to transportation to vote.
5. Flooding fixes in town, Fitchburg
The city is planning to work with several other governments to solve flooding problems on its southern and western borders.
Fitchburg and the Town of Verona last year approved a contract for consultants to examine the issues with flooding that have led to multiple closures of Fitchrona Road over the last two decades.
Those consultants have looked at the challenging topography of the area that currently has water flow from Goose Lake needing to move to higher elevations and underneath U.S. Hwy. 18-151 twice to flow out of the area.
The city also installed well monitors near Lake Barney, on the borders of the Town and Village of Oregon, as consultants continue to investigate the pattern of water flow from a glacial kettle that ballooned more than 20 times its historical size in late October 2018. That flooding continued to plague nearby residents in the following months as they collectively spent hundreds of thousands to keep the water at bay or out of their basement.
The city and its respective partners for each area have yet to decide on any solutions, but they could make progress this year.