BLACK EARTH – Ken Meigs can turn a beat-up vacuum cleaner into a lamp and make a wine rack out of a vintage radio.
His Bulldog Recover and Restore shop in this village’s downtown sells old doors, lights, cabinets and antiques along with dozens of items modified for other uses.
The unheated backroom of the sprawling building across the street from the old train depot still has remnants from its days as a feed mill, and Meigs and his wife, Sue, now use the space to store and sell reclaimed barn boards for customers who want to add character to a building or remodeling project.
“We’re really getting good traffic,” said Ken Meigs, a builder by trade who grew up here and at one time was the municipal judge. “I think people like to go to places like this and poke around.”
But the Meigses, business leaders and village officials in this western Dane County community are focused on more than just casual weekend shoppers.
Efforts are underway here to create more destinations and retail in an attempt to revitalize the village of 1,368 people that has seen many of its businesses disappear. The efforts come after two high-profile court cases that have consumed village officials with lawsuits and criminal proceedings.
With the recession in the rearview mirror, Epic Systems’ continued growth in nearby Verona and a county housing market short on inventory, Black Earth could be on the cusp of growth.
New homes are being built here in two subdivisions and existing homes quickly sell to young families who want the solitude of a small community located on the edge of the Driftless Area and bounded on three sides by a winding, blue-ribbon trout stream.
There also may be no better small town in America in which to buy a pair of shoes. Steve Schmitt’s Shoe Box draws thousands of people a year and recently expanded its sizeable presence on Highway 14. The business, however, stands in stark contrast to the rest of the community’s retail offerings.
“There’s a difference between a sleepy village and one that’s almost gone,” said Aaron Carlock, who last year purchased the old Patron’s Mercantile Co-op building and is studying what to do with the 12,000-square-foot brick and concrete facility in the heart of the village’s downtown.
“If you want to have a nice little town to live in, you’ve got to have some basic things, right? We need at least a place to go and have coffee or get something to eat. There’s not even that anymore.”
The Cenex and the BP convenience stores are the only places here to buy a morning cup of coffee.
There is no hardware store or café, residents need to travel outside the village to get a haircut or to fill a prescription at a pharmacy.
With no full-service grocery store, Cenex has filled the void by offering seven small aisles of fresh produce, laundry detergent, frozen waffles and pizza, canned goods, diapers, greeting cards and DVD rentals. Most residents here do their major grocery shopping at the Piggly Wiggly in Cross Plains or at supermarkets in Madison or Sauk City.
“We’re trying to work with anyone we can find that wants to relocate down here to Black Earth. We have some space,” said Shellie Benish, village clerk, treasurer and administrator. “It’s kind of a bedroom community of Madison, but there’s just been a lot going on here in this community that has thwarted the economic development effort.”
The Heiney’s Meat Market building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been converted from a restaurant into apartments and the property where Schmitt’s father started his shoe business in the downtown is a vacant lot owned by the village and up for sale.
The former Luckenbooth Café is closed and the building for sale while Carlock’s Mercantile building, once home to Trails Media, former publisher of Wisconsin Trails Magazine, is empty after a software company with 40 employees pulled stakes last spring for Verona.
And then there are the court cases.
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The owner of Black Earth Meats filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court against the village alleging that the village, by threatening legal action, had violated its due-process rights by preventing it from getting a loan that it needed to stay in business.
The meat market closed in July 2014 and is looking for another area location, but its former facility in Black Earth is for sale. The village contended the company had grown too big for its downtown facility, disrupted village services and created problems for neighbors, who complained about odors, garbage and truck traffic on residential streets.
In November, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote in a decision that the village did not violate the due-process rights of Black Earth Meats when it took steps to stop what it viewed as a public nuisance created by the business. The company has appealed the decision.
Meanwhile, in a criminal case, the former clerk-treasurer for the village was sentenced in December to two years in prison for stealing $400,000 from the village and the electric utility with which it partners. Stephanie Lathrop, 35, of Sauk City, stole the money from 2009 to 2013, according to court documents.
“We’ve had a lot going on,” said village president Pat Troge. “It’s been a very busy almost three years, so now we can start focusing on what really needs to happen.”
The village is working with Madison-based Vandewalle & Associates on a redevelopment plan that targets specific areas of the village. They include a vacant lot behind the train depot for multi-family housing and gardens, an extension of a recreation trail from Wisconsin Heights High School to the village, and gateway and streetscape improvements along Highway 14 and the downtown.
The most ambitious project may be the redevelopment of the former Ballweg Chevrolet dealership property on Highway 14 that closed more than eight years ago. The owners of the property have an accepted offer of $600,000 from the village, which will then seek redevelopment proposals for the now-blighted property, a block from the Shoe Box.
“We have a very proactive village board that is really after economic development here, and I don’t think we’ve always had that,” Benish said. “They’re not afraid to take risks, and I think we’re at a point where we have more community support.”
One project is already showing results. Ken and Sue Meigs are renting the former feed mill from the village for $1 a year and pay about a $4,000 annual fee in lieu of taxes. The property was donated to the village in 2014 by Premier Co-op and the Meigses, who want to continue to redevelop the building and expand their business, have the first right of refusal to buy the property.
“It just kind of slowly died,” Ken Meigs said of the village’s business district. “We’re just trying to get something going here in Black Earth that’s connecting with the past.”
Carlock, a former Epic employee who recently sold his consulting business, is unsure what he will do with his building, constructed in 1933. One idea would be to use the space for a digital business incubator. Tenants could include graphic artists, video game developers and video production companies. The rural, picturesque setting away from an urban area would help draw potential tenants.
“It’s really only a matter of time before things start pushing out this direction,” said Carlock, who lives just south of the village. “I wanted something close to home that I could have as a home base to help other people and try to help this community out, too. I think it’s very important that if you have the ability and the means, to help your own community out.”
The downtown has some service businesses like a bank, insurance and law offices, a dental clinic, a small public library and a sign shop. The Shack is the village’s only stand-alone bar and is located just down the street from Black Earth Lanes, an eight-lane bowling alley that has been a downtown fixture since 1947.
Part of the village’s past is on display when customers walk through the front door. That’s where they are met by the “Earthman,” the former mascot for the now-closed Black Earth High School.
Lori and Jonathan Abing purchased the bowling alley in August 2014 and have given it a fresh coat of paint on the inside, spent $13,000 on a new exterior façade and offer nightly food specials that include spaghetti and meatballs, deep-fried shrimp and barbequed pulled pork. Afternoon games of euchre are common.
“Black Earth isn’t going to boom overnight. It’s going to take people like Aaron (Carlock) and us to help make this a vibrant community,” said Lori Abing, who has a law practice across the street from the bowling alley.
“The people here are wonderful, and we have the real estate. I think it’s primed to be a booming suburb of Madison.”