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Randy's Ramblings: St. Croix Meadows compromise would be good for school and city

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opinion River Falls, 54022

River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Editor's note: This column has been edited to correct misinformation that appeared in June 19 print version of the Star-Observer. In the original version, reporter Randy Hanson said that Mayor Alan Burchill could veto rezoning St. Croix Meadows dog track property for school use if the City Council was deadlocked on the issued. That was incorrect. Under council rules, the mayor doesn't have a vote on zoning amendments, which require two-thirds majority approval (four members) for passage. We apologize for the mistake.

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I was hoping the city council and school board could agree on a plan to allow a high school to be built on the vacant St. Croix Meadows dog track.

The June 9 joint meeting of the two bodies gave some reason to believe it could happen. But the door appeared to slam shut at Monday night’s meeting of the City Council.

Two city council members who previously hadn’t staked a position on the new school plan -- Rich Vanselow and Mary Yacoub -- came out strongly against it.

That means that even if Council President Randy Morrissette II could be persuaded to join Alderpersons John Hoggatt and Jim Webber in supporting the plan, it would be one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed for approval.

At the June 9 meeting, the school board presented a proposal for mixed use of the 130-acre site, with a high school on 63 acres and private development on another 33 acres.

The school board said it has decided to build a new three-year high school someplace. The middle school would become a school for grades 6-7, and the existing high school would become a grades 8-9 building.

The district would sell its administration building on Brakke Drive in the town of Hudson and move the offices back into the current high school building.

Some of the same concerns that torpedoed the district’s last effort to rezone the dog track resurfaced with the new plan.

Mayor Burchill brought up the loss of tax revenue and development property.

He also pointed out that city has 157 acres of school property within its boundaries, which he said is 90 percent of all the property the district owns.

Meanwhile, the town of Hudson, the second-largest municipality in the area, has no public schools, Burchill noted at the June 9 meeting. He added that none of the current school board members reside in the city.

I understand the mayor’s frustration about the city providing more than its share of the amenities and services for the greater community. City residents are stuck with higher tax bills to pay for the services, while the township folk enjoy them, too.

I’m not so sure that fears about the loss of tax revenue and development property are valid.

The 2013 total property tax bill for the dog track was $98,896. Of that amount, the school district received close to half, somewhere around $48,000. The city got a little less than a quarter of the total, about $24,000.

The city’s tax revenue from the St. Croix Meadows property is about three-tenths of a percent of its $7.18 million in property tax revenue for 2014.

Meanwhile, other commercial development has taken place (including Hudson Center on the site of the former tourist information center) to more than offset any loss of revenue from the dog track.

And more development is coming down the pike, including a possible Walmart Superstore across Carmichael Road from the Target store. (On June 16, the city council also nixed a proposal to build 220 single-family homes on the golf course.)

At the June 9 meeting, the mayor referred to an evaluation done by Dennis Darnold, the city’s development director, when the request was made in early 2012 to rezone the entire dog track property from general commercial use to public use.

Darnold reported that site could generate as much as $1.19 million in total property tax revenue if 80 acres of it is developed for commercial use (with 16 acres for public streets). The city’s share of that revenue would be roughly $318,000.

But as was pointed out during the debate a couple of years ago, the dog track, located about a mile south of I-94, isn’t a highly attractive commercial site. Whether it will ever be fully developed for that purpose is questionable.

Walmart doesn’t want it, we know that.

Which brings me to the argument that allowing a high school on the dog track would use up much of the land in the city that is available for commercial development.

There’s property on just the other side of the city limits that can be developed, too.

In the past, when businesses have wanted to bring land into the city, the council has accommodated them. Currently, the Plan Commission is reviewing three petitions for annexation, if my count is correct.

Some say the school district should buy farmland south of River Crest Elementary School in the town of Troy for a school site. If locating a high school south of I-94 is a problem, isn’t it worse to push it farther down County Road F?

Some people question the enrollment projections done by professionals hired by the school board.

To me, it stands to reason that an attractive community on the edge of a large, thriving metropolitan area will see a rise in its school-age population – especially with the new St. Croix River bridge in the town of St. Joseph set to open in 2016.

I reject the notion that the dog track site is too valuable to be used for a high school. In my book, a community that values its schools will do just fine financially.

You can’t be a first-rate community without first-rate schools, and good schools attract good people.

As someone pointed out at the June 9 meeting, schools are usually located where the people are. School Board Vice President Brian Bell noted that’s where the water and sewer service is, too.

Alderperson John Hoggatt asked if people really want their high school to be built outside the city.

For the moment, it appears that is what could end up happening.

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