Mar 3, 2013

Group fundraising for ag events, education center in Evansville

Excerpted from Janesville Gazette
By Gina Duwe

A private group hopes to build a regional agricultural events and education center in Evansville that also could host the Rock County 4-H Fair and Blackhawk Technical College agriculture courses.

Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group last year paid $2.17 million for 217 acres at the southeastern corner of Highway 14 and County M on Evansville’s east side.

If SWAG can raise at least $25 million, it plans to build an agricultural education and innovation complex. It would focus on educating people about and engaging them in agriculture and promoting and protecting the industry.

“The ag industry has relied on people who don’t understand the ag industry to tell the story for years and years and years,” said Kevin Klahn, vice president of the group’s board. “It’s time for us to be proactive and tell our story … in a positive way and help people understand.”

Board members of the group met with The Gazette to share their vision.

About 40 acres would be used for commercial development, and 80 to 100 acres would be dedicated to agriculture activities. The rest would remain working farmland for test plots and future growth.

Commercial development could include a retail store, restaurants or a hotel.

“It’s likely to be businesses that complement the project, but we don’t know specifically,” said board member John Morning, an Evansville developer with a history in agriculture.

SWAG sees potential to showcase Wisconsin products or feature menus of Wisconsin food.

The commercial development could generate more than 300 jobs, said Kennan Wood, of Wood Communications Group, which was hired by the agriculture group to help with the project. Commercial developments could increase the city’s tax base by $30 million to $35 million, he said.

That doesn’t take into account the regional effect of visitors spending money during their trips, sales tax and hotel taxes, Morning said.

The project hinges on a fundraising feasibility study, measuring whether enough money could be raised to move ahead. The study is expected to be done in spring, and if everything moves along, groundbreaking could be sometime in 2014. The hope is to get financial help from agribusinesses and agriculture associations across the state.

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