Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Talk revives about redeveloping Aviation Plaza

Photo by Joseph Schulz
The overall Aviation Plaza site has three different owners, one of the complicating factors in redevelopment. 
By Joseph Schulz

Aviation Plaza, the largely empty tract that sits across Highway 44 from Wittman Regional Airport, is attracting renewed attention as a development site, but specific plans have yet to be released.

In December City Manager Mark Rohloff told the Common Council that Tom Masters, the owner of the Mineshaft Restaurant in Hartford, was working on a project to renovate the old Walmart site in Aviation Plaza. But that plan would have required tax increment financing (TIF), which drew a negative reaction from several council members.

Council Member Steve Herman said TIFs make sense as a tax incentive for developers who need to address infrastructure issues. “The [Menominee Nation] Arena, for example--the TIF there helped with getting rid of contaminated soil. It helped putting in sewer and sanitary,” Herman said.

Herman said Masters will have to pitch something bigger than just a restaurant for him to vote for a TIF.

“I look at a restaurant as, yeah, they employ people, but how many are full time jobs making 50-60 thousand dollars a year with health insurance, retirement and benefits?” Herman asked. “Very few people have those types of jobs at a restaurant.”

Rohloff said the Masters group wanted to submit a TIF application to address problems with the infrastructure including the parking lot, storm water runoff and sidewalks.

“That’s an issue that I’m very hesitant about because along Highway 41 the need for TIF and things like that aren’t needed generally,” Rohloff said. “But these issues are there. They’re legitimate.”

In late January, Rohloff reported the situation was on hold. “I know there was some curiosity about it because it was supposed to be imminent, and then it wasn’t,” Rohloff said. “My advice to council is: Don’t hold your breath.”

Walmart left Aviation Plaza in 2003, and JC Penny closed in 2015 while Rogan’s Shoes has remained open.

Each of the parcels has a different owner. Pat Rogan owns the Rogan’s Shoes parcel, Phoenix Realty Group owns the JC Penny parcel and Masters owns the Walmart parcel.

According to Rob Kleman, the senior vice president of economic development for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, having three property owners makes redevelopment difficult, because regulations have changed since the site was built.

“For example, there’s one water line that serves that property,” Kleman said. “There used to be one owner, Walmart. Now with multiple owners and new regulations governed by the Public Service Commission that require every property have their own water service. You can’t be on the same line anymore.”

Hurdles to redeveloping the area include Infrastructure, stormwater retention and building plans, said Audra Hoy, director of business and economic development for the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp.

“You have infrastructure in place that’s been in place since the mid-80’s,” Hoy said. “So, whatever is done on any of those parcels has to be brought up to code, which of course would be a cost burden.”

Hoy said regulations regarding stormwater retention are another hurdle for developers because all the parcels can’t share stormwater retention facilities.

“There was a time that you could use storm water retention that was not necessarily on your parcel,” Hoy said. “The regulations have changed. So, now you have to do all of your storm water retention on your parcel specifically.”

Another restriction to redevelopment of the site are airport overlay regulations, which dictate what can and cannot be built on the site, Kleman said.

“The city has hired a consultant,” Kleman said. “They’re looking at their entire airport overlay zoning and ordinance. Not just that area but the whole southwest part of the community. Airport overlay restrictions a very prohibitive from a development perspective on that entire site and other sites around there.”

Kleman said the current airport regulations allow for a restaurant to be built only on the northern end portion of the site.

“The northernmost portion, those [airport overlay] restrictions are not part of that,” Kleman said. “Mr. Masters would be able to construct a restaurant there, or anyone else for that matter.”

Despite hurdles to development, Herman noted that the council approved a plan to build a Sam’s Club in Aviation Plaza in 2015, but the deal fell through.

“They [Sam’s Club] chose as a corporation not to build there,” Herman said. “They did a reorganization, and they were not expanding so they chose not to build there.”

Hoy said Aviation Plaza is attractive to developers because it’s near Interstate 41 and the Experimental Aviation Association grounds.

“There have been people interested in the JC Penny parcel on and off since it became available, same with the Walmart parcel,” Hoy said. “I think it’s just going to be the right fish on the right line at the right time.” Herman said the city has a vested interest in redeveloping Aviation Plaza because it is a gateway to the city.

“I think it’s important to develop it [Aviation Plaza], a bank is going to be getting built across the street from it, on 20th Street, where there used to be a gas station,” Herman said. “I think it’s important. It’s something that is on the city’s radar. It just has to be the right fit.”

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