The owners of the historic La Crosse Plow Co. building told a city committee Thursday they hope to turn the former downtown manufacturing site into residential and retail space beginning next year.
The Cleary family has requested a $2.4 million tax incremental financing loan from the city of La Crosse to help finance the estimated $25 million to $33 million renovation of the two-block former factory, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in March.
“It’s got wonderful bones, but it has so much more to offer,” Kristine Cleary told the city’s Economic Development Commission on Thursday.
The project encompasses both the three-story brick building and the one-story former foundry connected to it just to the north at 525 N. Second St. The developers plan to put in 60 residential units on the upper floors — with the possibility of a fourth-floor addition to add another 12 units — and retail, office or commercial space on the ground floor of the brick building, depending on demand.
Kristine Cleary said ideally the front of the building would face the river and some retail spaces, such as a cafe or coffee shop, would face south with some outdoor seating.
“Who doesn’t like to sit outside and eat or have a cup of coffee in the summer or the spring?” she asked.
The parking lot to the south would serve the retail space, and 133 parking stalls for residents are planned for the northern building.
“It used to be a foundry building, so it had to have a lot of ventilation. We’re hoping to bring that back,” Kristine Cleary said.
The site grew out of Albert Hirshheimer’s blacksmith operation, which produced plows, rakes and other agricultural equipment designed to be pulled by horses. Hirshheimer incorporated his business as La Crosse Plow Co. and moved to Second Street between 1909 and 1914.
“They had over 2,000 employees at one point, so it was huge for manufacturing and very critical to La Crosse,” Sandra Cleary said.
The building housed the La Crosse Plow Co., which was one of the largest employers in La Crosse at one time, until 1929, when it was purchased by Allis-Chalmers Co. Now defunct, Allis-Chalmers was once one of the largest tractor and agricultural implement manufacturers in the country.
The building subsequently housed Machine Products Co., later Precision Technology Inc., which produced engine parts until it failed in 1995. The building has been vacant for the past 21 years.
“There’s not a lot of fanciness, but you can just feel the strength of it,” Sandra Cleary said.
The designation as a historic building makes the site eligible for historic tax credits to offset renovation costs.
The owners plan to start on the north end of the building in February, and the project is tentatively scheduled to be finished in 2018.
“We wanted to move forward on this project many times; it’s just a very complicated project,” Kristine Cleary said.
With the buildings’ age and former use, there are environmental factors that require careful consideration — particularly at the north end, which was condemned in 2013 — but the Clearys are confident it will fill a need and be an asset to the downtown area.
“We really would like to partner with the city as a collaborator to get this project off the ground and get it moving,” Kristine Cleary said.
The commission will discuss the request next month after city staff have had the chance to gather financial information and draft a development agreement, but members were optimistic.
La Crosse Common Council and commission member Audrey Kader said, “To me, it’s just so exciting that we’re seeing a very strong likelihood of pulling this thing together. It’s important to the city.”
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat added that the project would add to the city’s already vibrant downtown.
“We look forward to seeing this evolve because of its significance, its history and its importance to the city,” Kabat said.
The project is the latest addition to downtown revitalization, which most recently has included the $68 million Belle Square project going up on the former La Crosse County Lot C site, numerous hotels and the planned Chalmers office building on Second Street, among others.