Rethinking space: Wisconsin counties team up with UniverCity to reimagine facilities

For Wisconsin counties, planning for future buildings can be like a giant jigsaw puzzle.  

They require strategizing, acquiring financing and property, and listening to community input. Through partnerships with UniverCity Alliance (UCA), Adams and Marathon counties examined their facilities planning goals with the help of University of Wisconsin–Madison students who created preliminary building remodeling designs and analyzed space needs. 

“(The student report) is another piece that we can take to the community and say that not only are we planning to build a new facility, we already have a plan to repurpose the old facility,” Adams County Buildings and Grounds Director Bill Runnels said. “We’re not just deserting it. We’re adding value to the community.”

UCA is an initiative on UW–Madison’s campus that connects Wisconsin local governments with university resources to move forward community-identified goals. Through its hallmark program UniverCity Year (UCY), community projects are paired with UW–Madison faculty, instructors, classes, and students.   

In Adams County, the current health and human services building at 108 E. North St. has limited space, a lack of privacy creating issues with confidentiality, and several building issues like HVAC inconsistencies and heat loss from poor insulation. The county is looking to build a modernized facility that better meets the needs of patients. 

“I’m still hopeful that within the next year or two, we’re going to move forward with this new facility,” Runnels said. “At that point, when we finish it and transition everybody from the old building into the new one, I would like to see that building find a new purpose in life.”

Before moving forward with the new building, Runnels said the county wanted to examine a plan to repurpose the current facility and “keep it in the community.” This is the question civil and environmental engineering students, taught by adjunct professors Jan Kucher and Mark Oleinik, considered in their project, which involved analyzing three design alternatives from construction, hydraulic, geotechnical and structural aspects.

Ultimately, the students recommended repurposing the space into a retirement community to “serve the unmet needs of the senior population.” 

“It would be a great addition to the community to have that available to the public,” Runnels said.

‘There is a way’ 

Marathon County is considering where to locate services to best serve residents. Interdisciplinary engineering students in a leadership class taught by Director of Student Organizations and Leadership Development Paige LaPoint and Professor Greg Harrington, imagined functional and creative solutions embedded in community ideas for two county-owned buildings.

“The student report shows people that there is a way to plan for these things in the future,” Planning Manager for Marathon County’s Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department Dave Mack said.  

The Lakeview Professional Plaza, 1200 Lake View Dr., and the vacant dormitory at University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point at Wausau, 615 Garfield Ave., provide an opportunity to accomplish county goals, address overcrowding at the courthouse, and consider community needs like homelessness and childcare.  

Mack said the county’s philosophy for facilities planning is “diminishing the idea of having scattered buildings all over the communities” and locating services together in a “campus concept.” For example, the county is remodeling a facility that will include the Social Service Department in addition to the Health Department and a nursing facility. 

“(The report) helped to solidify some of the discussions about the fact that we may want to move to the campus concept, that it’s possible to move different departments around or to divest the county of some of its buildings because we have space in other places that may be more conducive to serving the public,” Mack said.  

Currently, the three-story Lakeview Professional Plaza is equipped with offices and collaborative work spaces. A special education program is housed on the third floor, though it does not occupy the entirety of the space.  

Meanwhile, the Marathon County Courthouse is overcrowded, and some departments need room to expand. 

The student team was tasked with researching the most efficient use of these spaces, analyzing the buildings’ usage, ADA compliance layouts, and furniture; and creating a set of criteria that the county could repurpose for future facility evaluations. They also evaluated the courthouse and surveyed department heads to identify which departments could be relocated to Lakeview Professional Plaza.

Ultimately, the report recommends moving human resources, conservation, planning and zoning; finance and the extension departments out of the courthouse–a total of 52 people, which fits comfortably in Lakeview Professional Plaza. These four departments said they did not need to be in the same location as any other department and could have their needs fulfilled by the new location. 

Creative community solutions

While the Lakeview Professional Plaza could meet a specific need, the vacant dormitory building is like a blank slate–with some engineering and financial constraints. The students were able to explore what the community might want and need in a space like the dorm. 

Using a 2019-21 countywide public assessment survey called the Life Report, the students sought to address top issues identified by the community: alcohol abuse, child care, diversity, inclusion and belonging, drug treatment and recovery, housing, water quality, and workforce development. 

Students suggested a crisis center or homeless shelter, a makerspace, child care center, and hotdesking–when multiple workers use a single physical workstation during different time periods–as ideas to address these needs in Marathon County. With each solution, the students kept COVID-19 in mind and prioritized social distancing.  

“That was one of the creative functions of this report was the students had the ability to dream for what the space could be,” Mack said. 

UniverCity Year partnerships 

Adams County partnered with UCA from 2019-2022 to examine local assets and identify opportunities to grow the economy and develop affordable housing. The partnership yielded 36 projects across the topic areas of economic development, education, and health. 

The space needs analysis was one of 35 projects completed during Marathon County’s partnership with UCA from 2020-2023. Projects covered topics on sustainability, economic development, evidence-based decision making, equity, and emergency medical services.

“To do that kind of work on such diverse, different topics would have never been done at the county level without being a part of UniverCity,” Mack said. 

In addition to receiving quality projects, Mack said it’s an important opportunity to make sure students receive practical experiences before entering the job market.  

–Abigail Becker