Bringing to life the vast and mostly vacant Oscar Mayer site on Madison’s East Side must be a top priority for the city, with help from the state.
So it was good to see the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. stepping up last week with another grant. WEDC awarded $250,000 to help renovate and restore one of the many buildings at the sprawling site. Last summer, WEDC gave $500,000 to update natural gas and electricity systems.
That’s not a lot of money, given the scale of loss for the city’s East and North sides in 2017, when the meat-processing plant closed after nearly a century of operation and community involvement. In its heyday, Oscar Mayer employed some 4,000 people in Madison and gave millions to the United Way and other causes. Most of the 72-acre property with 1.8 million square feet of space now sits idle.
OUR VIEW: Finding a buyer to remake the site should be top priority for Madison city officials
But WEDC’s involvement in the revitalization effort signals the state is a serious partner. And two years after the plant shut down, signs of progress are encouraging as the new owner, 910 Mayer LLC, works to lure commercial, office, light industrial, cold storage and retail businesses.
Two tenants — Total Administrative Services Corp., which administers benefit programs for businesses, and AssuredLeads, which caters to commercial insurance companies — have moved into part of the nine-story building that Oscar Mayer had as its headquarters. Other spaces have drawn local entrepreneurs who make and sell their products. The city could buy part of the property for a bus garage.
Eventually, a vibrant mix of commercial and industrial uses should emerge, including more amenities for surrounding neighborhoods.
OUR VIEW: Plant closing hurts city’s economy and heart, with big hole to fill on North and East sides
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who led a committee exploring the future of the site, is upbeat and engaged, calling the redevelopment of Oscar Mayer “critical.” The property has quick access to major highways and rail, and the new mayor envisions a rapid bus line serving the site.
A potential industrial user could tap into the huge water and electrical lines Oscar Mayer required. Ald. Syed Abbas, who represents the area, sees opportunities for food companies and a hotel to serve the nearby airport.
Momentum is building, and the city must stay focused. Yet it shouldn’t rush things, either.
Zach Brandon, who leads the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, says federal tax incentives should help draw investment to the site, and bipartisan support appears solid at the statehouse.
Brandon makes a convincing case for maximizing employment opportunities. Surrounding neighborhoods have a lot of affordable housing where plant workers lived. So one goal should be jobs that create wealth and sustain families. Just as important is maintaining and encouraging existing employers in the area.
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“You have to be careful you don’t piecemeal it together,” said Brandon, who met with the State Journal editorial board last week. “One chess move could preclude a future move. It will take time to do right — patience, leverage local and state resources, and the right private-sector partners.”
More than a third of the buildings are ready for tenants, according to the property owner. City officials and neighbors should keep their minds open to the possibilities.
Madison’s long love affair with Oscar Mayer may be over. But a new and promising chapter has begun.