This article first appeared in Sunday's State Journal.
EDGERTON — Steam no longer rises from the tobacco warehouses here.
Instead, there is hope.
Two of the brick and timber buildings are undergoing renovations. One will be used to expand the support programs and services of Edgerton Community Outreach, while another is being turned into apartments that could help bring more people and businesses downtown.
If the projects succeed, it could lead to more renewal for other empty warehouses that at one time used monstrous coal-fired boilers and heating systems to raise the temperatures in the buildings to 140 degrees so that tons of tobacco could be readied for market.
Now, the buildings could help revitalize the historic downtown.
"Anything that's going to bring people into downtown is going to be a benefit," said Mayor Chris Lund, a lifelong resident. "Any foot traffic has to be good."
First, a little history.
The city was founded in 1853 and eventually became a tobacco center. At its peak, Edgerton had 52 buildings that cured tobacco from Dane and Rock county farmers who at one time combined to produce 27,000 acres of tobacco. Of the 52, just seven remain, but they no longer are used for tobacco operations.
Of course, finding a use for a non-insulated building with thousands of square feet isn't easy.
In Viroqua, another former tobacco hub, an old tobacco warehouse is home to a 250,000-book collection and store called Driftless Books and Music. In 2003, in Madison, a pair of former tobacco buildings near West Washington Avenue and Proudfit Street were converted into apartments.
The tobacco transformation is providing reason for hope in Edgerton, a bedroom community between Madison and Janesville, just a couple of miles west of Interstate 39-90.
The city hosts the Sterling North Book & Film Festival in September and recently opened a new $26 million hospital. Each July, Edgerton celebrates Tobacco Heritage Days, although the spitting contest was struck from the event in the 1980s.
"There's a lot to realize in Edgerton," said Dan Rinehart, who is spending $1.23 million to convert one of the buildings into apartments. "What we are providing is brand new and unique."
In 2001, Rinehart, a Janesville native, purchased three tobacco warehouses and moved his taxidermy school and supply company into the largest, a 64,000-square-foot building at 203 S. Main St. He's only using a portion of it and someday hopes to convert it all into a 40-unit apartment building.
His other two buildings are on the other side of the downtown. By May, one of them, a 19,000-square-foot, two-story facility, will have 16 apartments.
The units will feature 10-foot ceilings and be flooded with light from the 6-foot-tall windows. The project includes a $260,000 economic development loan from the city and financing from the State Bank of Deerfield.
"The positives of why this works is based somewhat on some negatives in the market," Rinehart said. "I think there has never been a better time for this. There's just more demand for rentals. It's harder to get a loan and some people are stressed in their current homes and are looking for an alternative."
Sarah Williams, executive director of Edgerton Community Outreach, is one of those hoping that Rinehart's project is a success.
In 2010, her agency served 489 households in Edgerton but it also provides services in Evansville and Milton. One of the ways it raises money is through its resale shop at 106 S. Main St.
The shop has annual revenue of about $100,000, but that could increase if Rinehart's project brings more businesses downtown.
"The more we're supported, the better our agency is," Williams said. "If we don't have the base to keep the sales going, we can't continue to do what we're doing."
And what it's doing is impressive.
When Williams started with ECO in 2002, the $18,000 operating budget allowed her to work nine hours a week. Now, there are two full-time employees, a part-time employee and 50 volunteers.
The operating budget has increased to $350,000, providing housing assistance, a food pantry and other social services. On Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve, it hosted free community dinners at St. John's Lutheran Church. Each dinner drew 400 people.
Founded in 1989, the organization began renting 6,000 square feet on the first floor of a former tobacco warehouse owned by the city and located behind the former train depot. The city sold the 18,000-square-foot building to ECO for $1 in 2007 and now the agency is raising funds for a $600,000 renovation, including expansion to the second floor. The project is supposed to be completed in 2013.
"The buildings are so unique. They're strong and well built," Williams said. "Keeping the history is great."
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.