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Gays Mills addresses Main Street concerns
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More than 30 people attended a meeting to discuss the future of Gays Mills Main Street or Old Town, as it was called at the gathering in the village’s community building Monday night.

Gays Mills Village President Craig Anderson said at one point after someone had objected to the term Old Town that he was using it in place of the word floodplain because he thought it sounded more positive. Another resident countered that there was nothing wrong with the term Old Town and that the term was used to denote sections of many cities in America. The difference over what to call the village’s older section located in the floodplain only served to point out the diversity of viewpoints and lack of agreement at the meeting about the future of that part of the village.

Anderson noted in a brief introduction that the meeting was called in reaction to citizen concerns at an October village board meeting about the future of the Main Street area prompted by the buyout for demolition of the Bells’ building adjacent to the former Mickelson’s Market.

Anderson introduced Julie Henley, the village’s former flood recovery coordinator, who now has a new title. In response to a question from Anderson about her title, Henley said that her current title is Gays Mills Recovery and Development Coordinator and Central Business District Manager. The second part of the title is imposed by wording in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency (EDA) grant paying her salary, according to Henley.

Anderson explained that it was important to realize there are now businesses operating in more than one concentration in the village now—New Town and Old Town.

Early in the meeting, Gays Mills resident Sandy Reitzloff asked Anderson what type of rezoning was being planned for the older section of the village.

Anderson said he was not aware of any rezoning for the area currently under consideration.

Henley said that there had been restrictions placed on individual properties in some cases because of deed restrictions in the case of floodplain buyouts.

“Nothing is getting rezoned?” Reitzloff asked again.

“Not at this point,” Anderson replied.

Reitzloff was concerned that the Congregational Church, located on Gay and Post Streets in the floodplain, was going to be rezoned, another village resident, Denise Nguyen, explained.

“It got attention all the way down to Milwaukee,” Reitzloff said.

“It’s not before the board and it’s not before the plan commission,” Anderson assured Reitzloff.

“Then, someone was just acting on their own?” Reitzloff asked.

“I can’t say,” Anderson replied.

Local resident Lila Marmel asked if there was a “particular agenda” for the meeting.

Anderson informed her the agenda for the meeting was to provide public information. He allowed the meeting would be more than conceptual and would get into specifics about what buildings would be coming down and other details.

Henley reviewed the situation on Main Street and what improvements might be made to the streetscape or general design of the area. She noted places for people to gather like a community center, the new plaza in the redevelopment area, an ice skating rink or a special space behind the Kickapoo Exchange Co-op are important to developing a community based on activities.

Gays Mills resident Ed Block asked what is the process for determining what will happen on Main Street.

Private enterprise would be the determining factor, Anderson said.

In answer to questions about the future use of the Gays Mills Community Building, Anderson said the village board had decided to winterize and close down the building along with the library, when the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center is completed. In the ensuing discussion, it was learned that the Village of Gays Mills would be considering offers to purchase and use those buildings.

Anderson explained while the buildings will ultimately be offered to groups or individuals for reuse, the method by which those decisions will be made has not yet been established by the board.

Gays Mills resident Don Lampert was adamant when he said there is no plan for the revitalization of the downtown.

“I’m not happy with what’s happening downtown,” Lampert said. “The board is remiss in not creating a concrete plan.

“We’re just totally destroying our town…,” Lampert said. “How much money is there? Where is the public money for downtown? Where is the streetscaping downtown.”

Henley informed Lampert that it would be necessary to attract private funding and the disaster recovery money was earmarked for the new redevelopment projects.

“There is no public money for the downtown,” Henley said.

Board member Kevin Murray assured the concerned citizens in the crowd that there was “no ongoing haphazard process” for buying out and demolishing buildings on Main Street. Mickelson’s, the Bell Building, and Lana’s were already in the process of buyout and demolition from previous plans.

Anderson noted the village had been blessed with public funding following the floods, “way out of proportion” to the village’s population. However, he noted “that river (of funding) is not running forever.”

Anderson explained that funds not used in the housing replacement program for low and moderate-income residents to move from the floodplain to the new development could be used to elevate housing in the flood plain. There may be enough to do three or four houses in the old village.

Local resident Cindy Kohles asked what the future was for using the community building for the folk festival, the library book sale, the mobile food pantry and other events.

Murray told those in the crowd interested in preserving and using the building “to form a group, talk to Julie and come before the board with a plan.”

Before leaving, Sandy Reitzloff again addressed the board. She referenced an Independent-Scout story from 2008 or 2009 talking about the village’s attempts to find consensus about flood recovery.

“Money spoke louder than what the people had to say,” Reitzloff concluded. “That’s called progress.”

Anderson noted that previous boards may have had more interest in the new town, but more recent boards are balancing the needs of the old town with the new town.

Anderson and Henley emphasized the need for private business to step forward with plans to revitalize the old town.

Gays Mills resident and owner of Backhawk Auto Repair Chris Smith saw the problem differently.

“There’s great talent in this area,” Smith said of the proposed private revitalization effort.  “The problem is there’s a lack of money. There’s no money.”

For her part, Gays Mills resident and business owner Allison Showen was not satisfied with the meeting.

“I haven’t learned much,” Showen said after almost two hours at the meeting. She said she came hoping to hear specific proposals about revitalizing the downtown, but didn’t hear any.

Henley said that while she was interested in the success of the Main Street area and it was vital to overall success of the village, working on Main Street problems was not part of her job description. She noted that she was hired to help facilitate the redevelopment efforts in the new town.

Murray re-emphasized that “private people need to pick it up down here.”

Anderson concluded by pointing out that the new town and old town need each other.