The long-awaited restoration of the Garver Feed Mill is mostly complete, but creating this sustainable destination, even after a development vision emerged, was not a walk in Olbrich Park.
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Madison's east side can sometimes be the forgotten stepchild when it comes to local redevelopment, but with the completion of Phase I of the Garver Feed Mill redevelopment project, the east side has a new crown jewel to boast about.
After more than two decades of neglect and predictable decay, polishing this gem didn’t come easy. All redevelopment projects have their special challenges and confront an occasional barrier related to cost, financing, or scheduling, but when a developer such as Baum Revision and a local contractor such as Bachmann Construction are refurbishing a historic building, those challenges are magnified.
The Garver Feed Mill, renamed after James Garver purchased it in 1929, is located on a five-acre site behind Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Originally built in 1906, its use by the United States Sugar Co., which refined beets into sugar there, and then as Garver Feed and Supply Co., which provided livestock feed to farmers in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, make it historically significant from both manufacturing and agricultural perspectives.
Yet from the time the feed mill closed down and the city of Madison purchased the property in the mid 1990s, it took more than a decade for a development focus to emerge; when it did, the Great Recession helped kill it in the crib. “There was always a desire to do something with the building, but as is always the case when there are competing priorities, it never rose to the top of the priority list,” recalls Matt Mikolajewski, director of the city’s economic development division. “Around the 2007 timeframe, there was an RFP and some discussion with Common Wealth Development around an arts incubator, and then that didn’t progress forward.”
In recent years, city policymakers realized they either had to redevelop the the building or tear it down because it was starting to crumble. When the redevelopment ball finally got rolling, the building’s transformation into an artisan food facility with public access had to be completed in accordance with state and national park preservation standards so that it could be registered as a national landmark. That’s where Bachmann Construction came in.
Bachmann Construction, a local family owned construction firm with experience in historic restoration, was selected by Baum Revision as the general contractor on the project. The Bachmann team was tasked with restoring the building’s interior and exterior masonry, roof, and floors, and it had to develop something compatible with nearby Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Watching closely was the National Historic Register, the City of Madison Historic Preservation Office, and other historic-preservation groups.
To gain an understanding of Garver’s redevelopment challenges, we spoke to Mikolajewski and the following project players: Al Bachmann, president of Bachmann Construction; Chris Quandt, senior project manager, Bachmann Construction, who called Garver the most unique project on which he’s ever worked; Naomi Kroth, project manager and vice president of marketing for Bachmann Construction, who is handling the build outs for several women-owned businesses at Garver; Bryant Moroder, project manager for Baum Revision, the Chicago-based developer that acquired the decaying mill from the city and invested nearly $20 million to convert it into an artisan food production facility; and Madison alder Marsha Rummel, whose east-side district contains the Garver site.
In the first decade after the feed mill closed, it was damaged by a fire accidentally set by kids, and it was beaten down by weather, occasional vandalism, and neglect. Prior to the 2015 RFP process that produced Baum’s artisan-food vision, the most serious attempt to develop the site was the proposed arts incubator, and when that fell through, the building’s future remained in limbo for several years. At one juncture, public funding for its demolition was put in the city budget.
The before-and-after reality of the Garver Feed Mill building demonstrates the challenge contractors had in transforming a decaying building into a modern facility for food artisans and consumers alike.
By early 2014, the city of Madison was ready to accept proposals from developers interested in renovating Garver. The city established several conditions for those interested in revitalizing the property, including a requirement that all proposals remain sensitive to the needs of the neighborhood and the adjacent Olbrich Botanical Gardens.
In March of that year, Baum Revision’s vision won the support of the Garver Feed Mill Criteria and Selection Committee, which voted to approve Baum’s $19.8 million redevelopment plan. In April 2015, the full city council chose Baum’s plan over three others, including a $39.8 million senior housing option from Alternative Continuum of Care, which was selected as a backup plan.
Several delays and deadline extensions ensued to push back the groundbreaking, but Phase I has finally been completed, with Phase II “micro-lodges” still being planned on adjacent land. The core Phase I renovation encompasses 60,000 square feet of space, including a 13,500-square-foot atrium for public events.
When Chris Quandt first heard that he was going to be the Garver project manager, he greeted the news with a mix of excitement and apprehension. A native of Milwaukee, which has many such buildings, Quandt knew Madison had no other buildings like Garver. “I was ecstatic, I was excited, and I still am because it’s an incredible project. So, as a project manager, what went through my mind was ‘Oh, this is incredible’ and then ‘Oh, my goodness, how are we going to do this?’”
Moroder, a former executive director for Sustain Dane, had some anxious moments of his own. Initially, the sale of Garver from the city of Madison to Baum Revision was expected to close by December 2016, but that did not happen because the negotiations were more complex than first anticipated. In fact, the closing was pushed back several months.
Asked to identify his worst day during the redevelopment process, Moroder instead cited his worst time period — the challenge of getting the project off the ground. The winter of 2017-18 was approaching, and Baum Revision wanted to preserve as much of the exterior brick as possible before the cold weather arrived. “Closing on the property was a complex proposition, and the rehab could not begin until Baum technically owned the property,” Moroder says. “By September 2017, we were ready, but we still hadn’t closed.”
Oddly enough, the worst day for Al Bachman was probably two weeks after his firm started the project in December 2017, at least six months later than it wanted to, and with a great deal of exterior restoration to do. It didn’t make for a happy situation. “We didn’t get clearance to start until Dec. 2, and it actually was a nice day — 60 degrees. Two weeks later, a massive cold front came through and so the project got delayed; the construction end of the project got delayed almost from the beginning,” he recalled. “That set us back throughout the project in terms of completion and being able to turn it over to the owner in the spring of 2019, which is what we had committed to. It finished a couple of months late, so the first two weeks of the project were disappointing, knowing that we were starting an exterior project in the winter time, but it all turned out well.”
At about the same time, there was another source of anxiety from the political realm. In November 2016, the surprise election of Donald Trump to the presidency created some uncertainty about the availability of $2.5 million in New Market Tax Credits, which was the last piece of the financing for Baum Revision and perhaps the biggest hurdle to clear. With the Trump administration poised to pursue a tax-reform legislation, Baum and Bachmann initially were uncertain how these tax credits would survive the reform effort.
By January 2017, the city informed Baum that it wanted all of its financing shored up by the end of February. Baum had been trying to secure the tax credits since November of the previous year, and had the tax credits not been available, the city’s second choice for the site — the senior housing complex — remained a viable option.
The answer came just in the nick of time, as Baum secured the tax credits, and along with a previously awarded $500,000 industrial grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., some funding from the city, and its own resources, the firm now was armed with all the financing required. It could move forward with plans to breathe life back into Garver.
“It took a long time for Baum to get the tax credits,” Quandt notes, “and without those tax credits, my understanding is the project would not have happened.”
As Kroth notes, the worst thing that can happen to a development is for the financing to falter after it’s approved. That’s basically what happened to the arts incubator. “My understanding is that when the recession happened, the money and financing dried up, but at least construction was not halfway through when financing fell apart,” she says. “So, as a contractor, what you’re really worried about is that you’re halfway through a project and suddenly something happens.”