Gays Mills 1

As the coordinator of the flood recovery efforts in Gays Mills, Julie Henley is leading the effort to move homes and businesses out of the floodplain of the Kickapoo River and to higher ground. The Mercantile Center, in the background, is about finished and will be home to a variety of businesses, some of them new but many that had been on the village's Main Street.

GAYS MILLS — The children's corner in the new library here offers a spectacular view of the hills and a terrific spot for story time.

The young bookworms who show up for the readings by library director Maura Otis and gaze out the large windows may not realize it, but they're part of a real-life saga that will likely be talked about for years to come in this village of about 600 people in north-central Crawford County.

You see, moving a large chunk of a town out of harm's way isn't easy. It takes time and money and is controversial.

But almost four years after the last devastating flood from the swollen Kickapoo River, the Uplands of Gays Mills, as some refer to it, is taking shape on the east and west sides of Highway 131 about a mile north of the original downtown.

"It's starting to look like a town up here instead of a field with a few townhouses," Otis said.

"I wish I could say it was easy, but this is a community still getting its feet back on the ground after the floods."

The village lost about 40 homes between the floods of 2007 and 2008. Many homeowners and businesses, like the Kickapoo Exchange Natural Food Co-op, Kickapoo Meat Locker, a cafe and a few bars, have chosen to stay in what is now referred to as the Historic River District.

Last week was my third trip to this apple-centric region since the decision was made to mimic nearby Soldiers Grove, which did a more comprehensive move in the late 1970s.

I first visited Gays Mills in the fall of 2009 for a groundbreaking and returned the following year to check on the progress, which consisted of two five-unit townhouse buildings and a single-family home.

Now, 16 months later, there are eight single-family homes, plans for another seven townhouse units and a business district.

The Community Commerce Center includes not only the library but village offices, a community room and a community kitchen. Up the road, there is a new building for the ambulance service and another for the village's plows and mowers.

On the east side of the highway, just below the housing development, a 15,000-square-foot Mercantile Center is almost completed. It will soon be home to a wide range of businesses. There are plans for a bistro, dance studio, hair salon, the offices of the local newspaper, a wedding photographer, incubator space for artists, and a general store.

Robert E. Lee will also move his barber shop to the new space after 36 years of holding court on Main Street. He plans to bring his collection of old baseball gloves and local historical baseball photos along with his eclectic music collection that includes 1970s rock, polka, blues, Dixieland jazz and the Happy Yodeler.

"I'll miss Main Street," said Lee, while taking a break in his barber chair last week. "There's been a lot of memories here."

Of course, some of those memories have been nightmares.

That's why his business neighbor, Charley Preusser, editor of the Crawford County Independent, moves large bounded volumes of the paper to a higher spot in the office whenever there is heavy rain. When Preusser and his small staff move into the Mercantile Center next month, the new office won't have a brick fireplace or show the water marks of the floods, but it will be dry. And, because of the building's insulated concrete form construction, energy-efficient and almost tornado-proof.

"The main focus is to get the basic services taken care of," said Julie Henley, the village's energetic and starved-for-time flood recovery coordinator. "All these little businesses still survive but create, then, enough synergy to attract other businesses, which creates more jobs and supports that whole incubator, entrepreneurial spirit that we're really relying on here."

Other plans for the Uplands include a 14-room inn and the relocation of the funeral home. Nam Song's indoor mushroom farm, located in a 50,000-square-foot building, also could move. It's just 100 yards from the river and produces 6,000 pounds of mushrooms a week.

When it's all said and done, the relocation effort will have likely cost around $18 million — paid for through low-interest loans, private investors and state and federal grants.

Henley said the $2.7 million in emergency assistance for businesses will ultimately be leveraged by investors into $8.5 million in tax base. The anchor of the business district is the village's only gas station and grocery store. Steve Mickelson and New Horizon Supply Cooperative combined their Gays Mills businesses to create The Marketplace, a 7,600-square-foot supply depot for the region.

"There were a lot of challenges," said Mickelson, who contemplated closing his grocery store. "There were a lot of frustrating times. This thing strung out for so long. It was pretty stressful."

Another economic engine is a community kitchen adjacent to the community center room, which can hold about 150 people for a banquet and is believed to be the largest event space in Crawford County.

The Kickapoo Culinary Center, a $550,000 commercial facility with high-end appliances, a walk-in freezer and walk-in cooler, can be rented by farmers, bakers, cooks and caters for about $15 an hour. That will allow them to process fruits or vegetables or bake specialty breads and sweets. The gleaming kitchen is one of eight shared-use incubator kitchens in the state and is designed to create revenue and opportunities and help satisfy the entrepreneurial hunger of the region, said Brad Niemcek, director of the culinary center. He "retired" to the area in 2006 with his wife and raises bees.

"The whole idea is to keep the rental rates as low as possible so that we can facilitate the creation and development of new businesses while not driving us into financial ruin," Niemcek, 71, said. "It's an amazing space."

Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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