UniverCity Year sparks long-term changes in Green County

Adam Scheidegger, Casey Jones and Mike Olson didn’t know each other before working on a market analysis of the City of Brodhead.

Now, the trio are in the business of transforming Brodhead’s downtown.

“It’s actually a pretty exciting time to be in Brodhead,” said Scheidegger, who is a member of the Brodhead Economic Development Committee and the Brodhead Chamber of Commerce. “As a community right now, we’re doing a pretty good job, and it’s starting to show.”

Scheidegger, Jones (the owner of a local bed and breakfast and member of the city’s Economic Development and Business Improvement District committees), and Mike Olson (president and CEO of the Bank of Brodhead) were connected through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s UniverCity Alliance (UCA) and University of Wisconsin Division of Extension.

Green County, in which Brodhead is located, partnered with UCA’s hallmark UniverCity Year program from 2017-2020. The three-year partnership connected the county with university resources and resulted in 50 projects. One group of students in Urban and Regional Planning (URB R PL 912) collaborated with UW Extension on specific aspects of a downtown market analysis report. 

“This is a great example of the power of the Wisconsin Idea in community,” said Victoria Solomon, an associate professor in Community Resource Development with UW Extension. “Exciting things happen when building networks, exploring opportunities based off data and learning, and having people with different perspectives and experiences come together to envision a positive future.”

Students conducted a business inventory and interviewed local owners to capture their concerns about working in downtown Brodhead. Ultimately, the students recommended pursuing opportunities for market expansion, including locating the headquarters of a major corporation in Brodhead, attracting small-scale specialty business and establishing more hospitality and entertainment businesses.

“The market analysis really showed us that there were gaps in the local market that weren’t being filled,” Scheidegger said. “We decided to make an investment together.”

Scheidegger, Jones and Olson purchased a former downtown bank building and converted it into the Brodhead Business Center–an office building in a premium location with capacity to host multiple tenants–that opened in 2019. They are also working to redevelop a second historic property in the downtown area and helped the city secure a residential housing development.

In a video about the UniverCity Year program, Olson said the outside help to grow Brodhead’s tax base and local economy was “definitely needed.”

“UniverCity Year is important because it brings that experience at UW-Madison … right down to the local community and says, ‘Here’s what’s possible,’” Olson said.

In an interview, Jones added: “The young people that were working gave us a whole fresh idea on what could happen, and we could pick and choose what way to go as a direction.”

Their new relationship, which resulted in the opening of the Brodhead Business Center, was an unexpected outcome of working with UniverCity Alliance but an example of the community-university relationships connecting the dots.

“Our organization really formed out of this UniverCity program. Quite literally without it, we never would have met each other,” Scheidegger said.

UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said that “great things happen when community members come together.”

“UniverCity Year offers a platform to do just that,” Luter said. “Even better, we were able to create synergies with the market analysis already happening through UW Extension. When we all come to the table to find ways to help, that’s when communities benefit.”

Looking ‘outside the box’

In addition to Brodhead, UW-Madison students studying a range of disciplines partnered with several other municipalities in Green County including Monroe, Monticello, New Glarus, Juda and Browntown.

Calling it an “overall great experience,” former Green County Development Corporation Executive Director Cara Carper said partnering with UniverCity Year provided the county’s local communities with momentum to move “stuck” projects forward.

“These are real things we really needed to work on that we don’t have the staff power to do,” Carper said.

For example, graduate students in the university’s Public Affairs program completed a cost/ benefit analysis to study whether the county and two cities in Green County should consolidate their 911 centers. Population Health Sciences students developed a proposal for data sharing in efforts to confront the opioid epidemic, while Civil Engineering students crafted plans for constructing senior housing in Brodhead.

The Juda School District received recommendations on being more energy efficient, while students developed a Safe Routes to School planning guide for the New Glarus School District.

In the area of parks, students developed a conservation plan for a locally historic parcel of 80 acres called the Pearl Island Recreation Corridor. Their work built on the community efforts that started with Brodhead staff, including Public Works Director Rich Vogel, but grew into a dedicated group of volunteers to clean up the area.

“I never really envisioned that us doing anything would create much interest in it,” Vogel said. “It was kind of a surprise to find out.”

The UW-Madison student team created a plan for the site to improve it as a community recreational attraction. They focused on increasing water quality of Decatur Lake, improving the banks of a hand dug waterway to mitigate runoff and creating more water-resilient trails in the area.

Vogel said he appreciated the UCA partnership because it brought in a set of different perspectives and ideas to consider.

“It gives us a set of eyes outside the box,” Vogel said.

—By Abigail Becker