Across the country, small but growing communities are working hard to invest in local infrastructure to sustain the growth that is taking place. This is particularly true of the city of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison that has gone to great lengths to take advantage of the growth and opportunity that presents itself.
Having experienced population growth and strong investment activity over the last several years, Sun Prairie has allocated resources and support to sustaining the health of the economy for the long term, while being committed to absorbing the growth to ensure it preserves quality of life for the community.
Mike Beale’s perspective as Economic Development Specialist with the city is positive and optimistic. “We found that we’re in a really strong position economically here in Sun Prairie. We’re the second biggest city in Dane County and I see more growth on the horizon. The county, as a whole, is growing rapidly, and Sun Prairie is going to continue to play an important role.”
An important aspect of Sun Prairie’s success story is strategic planning, which over the past few years has included a housing needs assessment, transportation-infrastructure evaluations, an equity audit, and a downtown design study to further invest in an already vibrant downtown.
For Beale, it’s important to accommodate the existing population while making room for newcomers. “We want to allow opportunities for all to live here, grow their families, and get good jobs,” he says. “That’s first and foremost in our minds. We’re somewhat unique in our active approach to community building and our long-range and short-term planning. We’re always looking at creative ways to support the community.”
The findings from the housing-needs assessment showed that, like many other communities across North America, gaps existed in every housing type, so the focus has remained on increasing the housing supply to ensure that residents of every income bracket, both settled and prospective, have a place to call home.
One such project is located at the corner of Main and Bristol Streets, the site of a 2018 tragedy that forever changed the trajectory of Sun Prairie’s history and development. Committed to rebuilding the area and the spirit of the community, a 92-unit market-rate apartment complex is under construction and plans are in the pipeline for a prospective 151-unit apartment complex and a 63-room hotel.
While the need for a complete range of housing stock still exists, there is no shortage of residential development activity in Sun Prairie. Last year, the city built the second most homes in the state behind Madison, helping to meet the population growth.
“We’re focused on increasing not only multifamily options but also the single-family housing options, too,” says Beale. “By building that many single-family homes, we’re hoping to allow our community members to purchase their own homes, and just by increasing the housing stock in general we want to be attractive to other people throughout the state and the region to continue to help staff the growing industry that we have here.”
It is becoming increasingly easy for people to get around once they settle in the community. Metro Transit service began on June 11 with the launch of two routes that operate during peak commuter windows, designed to complement the existing commuter bus services in and out of Madison each day.
“One route departs every 60 minutes from the Park and Ride, and another departs every 30 minutes, and they both circumnavigate the community. The one provides a more direct, quicker route and the larger of the two accommodates a broader population and serves more businesses,” Beale explains.
There are also plans to bring Bus Rapid Transit service to the community in 2024, which will further support those who commute to Madison each day as well as those who require regional transportation services. “Those buses are actually going to be able to stop traffic and go through red lights and things of that nature to allow for really quick service in and out of Madison, so we’re really excited for the bus rapid transit to come in 2024,” Beale says.
Heightened connectivity is another priority for Sun Prairie, which extends beyond its expanded transit service to include the city’s highways and Interstate access. New interchanges, as well as interchange improvements, will support the movement of people and goods across the region.
“There are talks about improving the Interstate 90/Highway 151 interchange and adding a new interchange at Hoepker Road to allow easier access to Interstate 90, which provides access to Chicago and Minneapolis Metro Area,” says Beale. In addition, we’re just off Interstate 94, which means you can be in Milwaukee in just over an hour. I think one of our greatest assets is our central location.” He adds that this is particularly attractive to Sun Prairie’s light manufacturing base.
From light industrial to retail and service sector growth, Sun Prairie is firing on all cylinders, and strategy is once again playing a role in its success. When it comes to small business and entrepreneurial support, the city has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for an incubator and co-working feasibility study to identify opportunities to help these sectors grow.
Sun Prairie’s economy is composed of what Beale refers to as, “a nice mix of blue-collar and white-collar workforce. It’s a really nice blend and it allows us to be attractive to different businesses of all sizes.” Some of the area businesses include Colony Brands, QBE Investments, Wisconsin Distributors, Royle Printing, and Trachte Building Systems, which has recently expanded.
“They expanded in our Park 151 industrial park so we’re really happy to have them here in the community. Their neighbor in Park 151 is Milwaukee Tool. They bought out a local company called Imperial Blades and rather than pulling that business back to the Milwaukee area they decided to invest here in Sun Prairie,” Beale shares.
The north side of the business park is set to be expanded by 64 acres, which is generating a lot of interest, as is Prairie Lakes, which has become a retail hub that draws shoppers from around the entire region.
Intentional spaces, thriving places
Sun Prairie is also encouraging growth through investment in quality-of-life initiatives. The city is home to excellent parks and recreation programs and lively events and festivals. One of the most popular is the prognostication event, which draws the attention of people across the globe when Jimmy the Groundhog gets to work on Groundhog Day.
“We are focused on placemaking and quality of life, and on making this a place where folks want to live and businesses want to locate and have adequate staffing to meet their needs; it’s a multifaceted approach,” says Beale.
Part of this approach includes investments in the local education system, which has also expanded to accommodate the growth of the last several decades. The community recently welcomed its second high school, Sun Prairie West, a new facility that offers novel and innovative educational opportunities for students such as collaborative learning spaces and new skills training to support local business needs.
Sun Prairie is also undertaking a downtown design study to optimize use of the space available in its core. Of particular interest are Cannery Square, a well-utilized quarter-acre park, as well as beautification and streetscaping efforts on Main Street which will make the area increasingly attractive and accessible to the community.
It’s evident that in Sun Prairie, economic development and community development is a team sport, with numerous partners working collaboratively to promote economic growth and social equity in the city.
Beale credits development partners like the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), and Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP), as well as the business community and engaged community members, all of whom have a hand in the city’s success.
By strategically balancing the economic and population growth it has experienced to date while mindfully sustaining this growth for the future, Sun Prairie has found a way to preserve the character of the community and the strength of the economy while identifying new and exciting ways to drive local and regional growth for years to come.