Three Rural Towns Address Housing Needs

Ladysmith, Elkhart Lake, and Rhinelander are highlighting efforts to address workforce housing needs.

Like many smaller Wisconsin communities, Ladysmith has struggled with finding and attracting workers due to a lack of affordable housing. But this small city in the Northwoods has found a solution. Later this year, the former Ladysmith Elementary School will begin a new life, providing 40 rental units for workforce housing.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has awarded the city a $200,000 Idle Site Redevelopment grant. It provides the final piece of a $13 million public-private sector partnership.

The Ladysmith grant is one of several workforce housing projects WEDC is assisting. WEDC is also providing $228,000 for the city of Rhinelander to convert a former motel into a 31-unit apartment building. It’s also providing $200,000 for the city of Elkhart Lake to prepare an old county highway site for two developments, creating a total of 120 units.

“What we’re hearing from communities around the state is that housing is a key element of meeting our workforce needs,” says WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes. “Smaller communities often face special challenges, such as putting together the needed financing. Public-private partnerships are often the solution, and WEDC is proud to provide these grants at a critical stage in the process so these projects can move forward.”

Ladysmith

Ladysmith City Administrator Alan Christianson says the project addresses two major issues: a shortage of workers and a lack of affordable, quality housing for them. He said local employers can’t find workers to fill existing positions and are reluctant to consider expanding. Housing starts have been slow in this city of 3,500. Construction of a duplex and two or three homes is considered a good year.

With one project, he said, “We’re gaining 40 housing units. That’s huge!”

The fate of the old school had troubled Christianson and others for years. Built in 1958, the two-story structure was closed in 2017 and sold to the city for a dollar. Since then, it has stood empty on its 10-acre site, surrounded by homes a few blocks from downtown. But to raze the building was unthinkable.

“To build a concrete masonry structure like that today, whether for a school or workforce housing, the cost would be astronomical,” Christianson said.

As word spread of tentative plans, area employers sent the city letters of support. This includes Weather Shield, Rockwell Automation, Marshfield Clinic Health System, Dairy Farmers of America, and more. Once the conversion plans began to gel, Christianson heard from many residents that they liked the idea.

The converted school will have 33 units, a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. All are affordable for renters earning less than the area median income. Seven townhomes will be built on the site and rented at the prevailing market rate.

The project also includes a community center, commercial kitchen, business incubator, meeting rooms, gym, and playground for children. It’s estimated the entire project will mean 133 new jobs and $8.3 million in labor income.

Rhinelander

A similar project is underway in Rhinelander, which received a $228,000 Community Development Investment Grant to convert a former Rodeway Inn into an apartment building with 31 units. It will provide affordable housing for seasonal workers during the busy tourist season and year-round. The project also includes space for new business.

“These apartments are critical,” said Patrick Reagan, Rhinelander city administrator. “We have a housing shortage just like everybody else, and to bring more housing into the market is great.”

Elkhart Lake

In Elkhart Lake, a $200,000 ISR grant will help the village prepare a site for two housing developments, one with 50 rental units, affordable housing for seasonal workers as well as veterans and people with disabilities; and the other with 70 townhomes, with no income restrictions. The ISR grant will help the village cover demolition and infrastructure costs.

“We’re a resort community with a lot of hospitality industries, so we’re hoping this will help a lot of those employees struggling to find places to live,” said Jessica Reilly, village administrator and clerk. “We don’t have a lot of apartments in the village. With these two apartment developments, we’re hoping to expand who can come here to live and work.”