Handling economic development after a city’s business district suffers the unthinkable.
Neil Stechschulte on Bristol Street, where Glass Nickel Pizza and Watertower Chop House once stood.
Photograph by Shawn Harper
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Neil Stechschulte is in his 12th year as Sun Prairie’s economic development director. During that time, the city has grown by leaps and bounds and expanded west along U.S. Hwy. 151 with Target, Costco, Woodman’s, and most recently, a new Menards store landing in the bustling Prairie Lakes development.
“There’s growth all over the city,” Stechschulte reports. Businesses are growing, like Sani-Matic, which just broke ground on a new manufacturing and office facility, mixed-use apartment complexes are going up, and the Hilton Garden Inn and Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse just held grand openings.
Meanwhile, Sun Prairie’s population has blossomed to about 34,000, sparking whispers about a future second high school to complement the Sun Prairie school district’s two new elementary schools. Such conversations are second nature to community planners.
But nothing could have prepared Stechschulte for the night of July 10, when a gas main rupture caused an explosion at Main and Bristol Streets that instantly leveled businesses downtown, displaced residents, diverted traffic for weeks, and tragically took the life of 34-year-old Cory Barr, a business owner, father, and volunteer fire department captain.
Stechschulte was at home about three blocks away when the blast occurred just after 7 p.m. “It sounded and felt like a truck hit the house,” he reports. Then he saw smoke billowing high above the downtown area.
A member of the city’s social media team, Stechschulte immediately began monitoring news reports and posting updates wherever he could. A few minutes later, he was asked to come to the Emergency Operations Center to help facilitate communications. For the next 48 hours, he helped pump information out to residents and a very concerned Dane County citizenry. “It was organized chaos,” he recalls, crediting city staffers who showed up to offer assistance wherever they could. “Our normal procedures worked and the right people got notified, but a lot of other staff just came in to help, as well. That really made a difference.”
Determining exactly what happened, whether anyone was at fault, and who pays for what are questions now in the hands of the Division of Criminal Investigation, a part of the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Just a month after the explosion, we asked Stechschulte to reflect on his experience.
“Many of the buildings downtown were old, but up until July 9 our intent was to help preserve them. Now we have a different perspective.”
— Neil Stechschulte, city of Sun Prairie
IB: You now have a unique perspective on crisis management. What are your first thoughts as you look back?
Stechschulte: That as awful as it was to lose Captain Cory Barr, it could have been so much worse. Restaurants were full. Traffic was driving by. It’s a testimony to our first responders that they got everyone out as quickly as possible.
IB: What were the priorities?
Stechschulte: The first priority is getting people to safety, stabilized, and out of harms way. But eventually you have to transition from emergency response to recovery.
IB: How is that going?
Stechschulte: The toughest part is respecting the property owners who not only have a financial interest but even more so an emotional interest in the buildings and businesses that were lost. We have to be respectful of their needs and timelines while still balancing the city’s need to try to get the roads rebuilt by winter. Sometimes those things are at odds and part of our role in economic development is to make sure everyone is being respectful of one another.
IB: What do you know now, before the final investigative reports come in?
Stechschulte: Six buildings were destroyed which totaled about $1.8 million in improvement value, not including land value. We’re aware of one insurance agent dealing with at least $5 million in claims, both residential and commercial, probably centered in the 100 and 200 blocks of Main Street. At least 250 employees were displaced from their jobs for a few days or longer, and we estimate that 300 days of business have been lost, and that’s growing. At least nine businesses still haven’t been able to get into their buildings, and about 18,000 cars a day have been rerouted off Main Street. Those numbers add up quickly.
IB: Other than the obvious, what other challenges were discovered?
Stechschulte: The small, independent businesses were impacted the worst and really need the biggest amount of help. Some may be underinsured or have no insurance. Some had language barrier issues. But we also need to salute the businesses that are doing things right.
IB: Such as?
Stechschulte: There are several, but Glass Nickel Pizza Co. [which was destroyed] really set an example despite their loss. They had the right insurance policy, they’ve been acting quickly, found temporary space, and have really been on the spot.
In fact, Glass Nickel and Salvatore’s Tomato Pies’ staff voluntarily catered Cory Barr’s memorial service. So, one business that lost everything, and Sal’s — which almost did because staff couldn’t get into the building — could have been focused on their own losses, but instead showed up to help others. It makes us proud to have them in our downtown and motivates us to support them however we can. They’re local and certainly proved it that night.
The Bank of Sun Prairie, which sustained its own damage, had a relief fund established within 24 hours that’s proven more successful than anyone could have imagined! It will probably reach $500,000 by the end of the year. [A committee has since been assigned to oversee the fund’s administration.]