A Rising Powerhouse

City of Sun Prairie, WI

Ten miles outside Wisconsin’s capital of Madison, the rising city of Sun Prairie enjoyed steady growth for many decades, but remarkable growth recently. With so much in its favor, this dynamic city is rapidly attracting significant business investment.

Founded in 1837 and formally incorporated as a city in 1958, Sun Prairie, WI was originally established as a satellite community to state capital Madison. It remained a small farming community until industrial growth began to accelerate in the 1960s.

Growth has veered sharply upward over the past seventy years, from a population of slightly over 2,000 in the 1950s to an estimated 35,000 today. “We are one of the fastest-growing communities in the state, from either a valuation or population standpoint. Luckily, growth is a Sun Prairie tradition. We’ve experienced seemingly sudden growth many times in our history, and it has served to make our community stronger. Our own Mayor moved here right after our population doubled in 1970 so we embrace the growth because we know it’s a hallmark of our past and a catalyst for our future,” says Director of Economic Development, Neil Stechschulte, noting that growth in the more urban areas is outstripping rural growth in Wisconsin.

Just ten miles from Madison, Sun Prairie still benefits from its proximity to the state capital. The city has long been a bedroom community for those working in the Madison area, but now the relationship is symbiotic; Madison-area companies are attracted to Sun Prairie’s lower density development and lower cost of living.

The right place
The city’s water and power utilities are publicly-owned, leading to lower-overhead rates and spurring growth. And last year, Sun Prairie and Madison were at last formally connected by a commuter bus service.

“That was a huge deal,” Stechschulte says, describing the ten-year financial and logistical challenge the city government overcame. “For the first time, Sun Prairie is connected by transit all the way to downtown Madison.”

Now companies in and around nearby Milwaukee are also seeing the value of the city’s placement. “The last couple companies we’ve worked with have identified that as a keyhole – not only wanting access to things in Madison, but also wanting the shortest drive possible to the Milwaukee market.”

Indeed, the city has reversed fears it may be swallowed by the growing Madison area and is thriving as an independent community.

“We’re becoming more of a magnet in that we’re attracting more Madison residents,” Stechshulte says. “We’re holding our own, and actually increasing our ability to be our own independent market at this point.”

Communities build businesses
To attract businesses to Sun Prairie, and retain them, the government is implementing an array of community development strategies, knowing that tax incentives alone do not attract businesses, and no business functions without a context.

Sun Prairie’s economic development division is an integral part of its community development department as a whole, highlighting this relationship. “We actually work hand-in-hand with our engineering staff, our planning staff,” Stechschulte says.

“We are essentially at the table for almost all major projects, making sure that we’re a part of the discussion and ensuring that that aspect of service is going to meet the needs of not only the current business community but position us for something in the future.”

Sun Prairie now boasts two brand-new elementary schools, with a new high school to be added next year. The city is also fostering retail developments, which are growing rapidly, providing new residents with the comforts and amenities that make life better.

Madison-based TDS communication is providing fiber-optic internet to the area, greatly increasing connectivity and business efficiency. Finally, mass-transit options (such as the previously-mentioned link with Madison) help speed commutes and reduce traffic congestion.

Building beyond agribusiness
With Sun Prairie growing the city is moving to attract businesses both within and without its flagship sectors.

Agricultural development and support have long been a mainstay of the area, thanks to Sun Prairie’s farming history and rich surrounding land. “We’re perfectly situated to be between the technical expertise and advancements available through the University of Wisconsin [at Madison],” Stechschulte says, adding that Sun Prairie provides a perfect testing ground for new agricultural or agronomic developments. He gives the example of an agricultural firm which applies industrial coatings to blades on harvesting equipment, improving their longevity and efficiency.

Stechschulte mentions another of the city’s big industrial clients, Winnipeg-based MacDon Industries, which manufactures custom harvesting equipment. “You see these companies doing unique things, but almost all of them have a direct tie to the agricultural industry,” he says.

But, in addition to its strong agricultural sector, Sun Prairie intends also to build on its relationship with UW Madison by attracting advanced engineering and manufacturing, as well as advanced R&D facilities. The city plans to bring finance, warehousing, and custom printing to Sun Prairie.

Incentive for investment
To secure these high-tech investments in the area, both the city and state are providing strong economic incentives. Sun Prairie boasts one of the first business parks in its county, to which it added an additional 64 acres of expansion area in 2018.

An additional private business park, known as Park 151, already includes a 130,000-square-foot spec building for office use.

The city is moving forward again after a tragic downtown explosion in July 2018, when a natural gas main ruptured in the downtown area, killing one firefighter and injuring five other emergency personnel. The blast destroyed several two-story, multi-use buildings in the bustling downtown area. Sun Prairie is now moving on from recovery to redevelopment.

“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to reinvent the area,” Stechschulte says. The city has a higher density of construction in mind to complement Sun Prairie’s growth. “The buildings we’re looking at now will probably be in the four- to five-story area, rather than just two or three, so we are looking at increasing the investment in building size in that immediate area.” He adds that the city wants to make this new development a central part of the downtown core.

To accomplish this, Sun Prairie is contemplating making this area a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district, which would stimulate development by reinvesting property taxes back into infrastructure development.

This direct incentive could provide a shot in the arm to help developers and businesses expand, helping the downtown area not only recover but thrive as a beacon of new urban development.

There is also additional support at the state level. Stechschulte says that tax incentives to attract businesses may be “welcome and good,” but points out that Wisconsin has enjoyed much greater success through the actions of its Workforce Development Board.

The state’s push for apprenticeships, and a new emphasis on the skilled trades, have been “a huge boon to what we can do for our area,” giving Sun Prairie a highly competent labor force.

The state also conducts supply-chain management projects, helping small businesses see how they fit in a much larger economy. No man – or business – is an island, and by helping owners realize that they do not operate in a vacuum, Wisconsin wants to get more businesses to work together on collaborative development projects to raise the state’s economic growth on a macro scale.

Thriving through growth
Sun Prairie’s resulting growth has influenced its own development policy. As Stechschulte explains, “We used to do a five-year capital improvement for major capital projects. We’ve expanded that out to ten years now, simply because of the number of projects coming in.”

His colleagues in city government are learning that Sun Prairie’s existing strategies are obsolete. “When an area’s growing as quickly as we are, it doesn’t take long for its land use strategy to get out of date. And even thinking beyond the technical needs of a community growing in numbers, a thriving Sun Prairie is one that is welcoming and fruitful for people from all walks of life. So as we strategize the best ways to plan for our growth, a lens that is cognizant and responsive to the needs and assets of our diversifying community is critical to both immediate and long-term success.”

The city’s growth has presented the council with the delicate challenge of driving expansion without overstretching Sun Prairie’s resources. “There is a cost that comes with growth,” Stechschulte says. Tax increases are easier for constituents to bear when material improvements such as new schools and downtown areas can be showcased. Increases for maintenance and upkeep are more difficult to sell.

Currently, Stechschulte and his colleagues are weighing options such as combining the utility and public works division to reduce bureaucracy, and ensuring that taxpayers’ dollars are spent as efficiently as possible, without administrative stumbling blocks.

Investing in housing
Affordable and workforce housing remain an urgent concern for the city; a necessity if workers and businesses are to be attracted. “We’ve been very fortunate in that our more recent workforce housing projects have been redevelopment sites in our traditional Central Main Street Corridor,” Stechschulte says. The city is also renovating and repurposing dilapidated industrial and commercial sites for residential use.

But, as Sun Prairie begins running out of these sites, the city is now working to create new housing developments, which Stechschulte describes as a challenge in its own right. “You can’t separate land use, transportation and housing; all three of those directly impact each other, so all three need to be planned together. That’s why when we talk about community responsive housing it’s part of our larger strategy that focuses on the needs of a community expanding both in the number of residents and the identities that make up our constituency. The needs of a modern Sun Prairie require us to stretch beyond the tried and true of community development to be inclusive of all whom we serve as a city.”

Sun Prairie continues to enjoy growth belying its size, thanks to its geographic location, strong workforce and economic incentives. The city must now work to integrate its economy within the Madison metropolitan area, ensuring steady growth.

Stechschulte describes how Sun Prairie must be invested in Madison-area developments, such as its regional airport. “We have a clear interest in making sure all those things are invested and maintained, and are successful as well. Going forward, that’s going to be one of our challenges, but it presents a great opportunity for us, too.”

September 20, 2020, 4:35 PM EDT