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Affordable housing projects are coming to the Minocqua area

Let's Minocqua Visitors Bureau

While the need for affordable housing has become evident since the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue pre-dates it.

Krystal Westfahl remembers her own struggle to find a house in the Minocqua area 10 years ago when she first took the job at the Let’s Minocqua Visitor’s Bureau.

“I was thinking, ‘Well, I'll find something for $100,000,” Westfahl said with a laugh. “It was laughable. I mean, I was looking at foreclosure housing. There was a handful of houses that were, available to me, and so, I knew immediately there was a problem.”

Westfahl is the President and CEO of the Let’s Minocqua Visitor’s Bureau.

Housing and labor needs

In 2017, Westfahl and her office started hosting roundtable discussions in the Lakeland area about labor and housing needs. She said people had a lot of concerns about these issues, but there weren’t a lot of solutions.

The Visitor’s Bureau hired a company to research, report, and help give them a clear path forward.

Since then, they’ve identified the kinds of housing that would best meet the workforce’s needs. They looked to other high tourist areas in the state like Wisconsin Dells and Door County.

Westfahl says, no matter what kind of housing it was, it came down to providing incentives for developers to come to Minocqua.

“Developers aren't just coming into communities and going, ‘Hey, I'm gonna build some low income housing.’ They can't make the numbers work. A community really has to be able to come to the table and say, ‘Listen, we can do this for you to encourage you to come and build here,’” said Westfahl.

That’s what the Minocqua community has done.

Incentivizing development

In April during Minocqua’s Annual Town Meeting, electorates approved a resolution for the town to purchase two parcels on Plaza Drive for no more than $352,000. Holtz Companies will use the land to build, operate, and manage J1 Visa student housing.

It's expected to house between 170 and 200 people.

“They provide not only housing opportunity, but also they have on site staff that run that facility, they have the J1 counselors that are actually located in that facility,” said Westfahl. “It's really an incredibly holistic view of J1 and how we can incorporate them into our community and have a company that actually has oversight of that whole project.”

J1 Visa’s are for international students to come live and work in the U.S. Westfahl says the Minocqua area employed about 120 students on these visas last summer and there are definitely jobs available for more.

Westfahl says this type of housing could potentially also be available for other types of temporary workers like those in the healthcare or construction industries.

Another housing development is also in the works in the Lakeland area.

NorthPointe Development was recently awarded a $1.3 million federal credit award through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

The housing tax credits will be used to build 50-units of townhome style housing in Woodruff. The units will qualify for the low-income housing program.

Those two affordable housing projects are expected to break ground this summer.

While those are underway, the years-long process of creating a TIF district to build more commercial and housing developments is also in the works.

A labor of love

Westfahl has called working through the Lakeland area’s housing issues a labor of love that’s not been without its challenges.

The high number of waterbodies is what draws people to the area, but it can also make it difficult to find land for development.

There was also some concern from people about the types of housing, who would be living there, and how their tax dollars would be spent.

Westfahl says a large part of what made these projects work is so many different people, with different connections, coming together to make it happen.

“You just gotta get the right people in the room. I don't think that there is anything that can be limiting, other than how well you can communicate the process and the outcomes. That is a huge challenge,” said Westfahl.

As the greater Minocqua area makes progress towards building affordable housing, Westfahl has also been talking with other communities in the Northwoods about how they might also be able to get these kinds of housing projects underway.

“We're sharing this information to others. It can be helpful, especially in the Northwoods, when our resources are limited. We often share most of those resources,” said Westfahl. “Certainly, there are developers that are interested in coming to the Northwoods, it's just a matter of talking to the right people and getting in the right room.”

The ultimate goal is to provide more housing in the area to hopefully bring in more people that can help fill workforce needs among local businesses.

It’s a growing need as Northwoods counties continue to see increases in visitor spending, with arecord $278.5 million spent in Oneida County last year.

“You look at the unemployment numbers, even in Oneida County, and they're incredibly low. Everybody that can work is working. We just don't have enough folks here, generally speaking, to sustain the tourism economy, as we've been seeing in the growth that we've been seeing,” said Westfahl.

Sustainability is the key word for Westfahl.

She’s hopeful these housing projects will help stabilize the workforce and sustain the community.

“We're also talking about sustaining local area businesses, and people that live here year round already, and are living, breathing and dying in our communities,” said Westfahl. “They're here as part of the fabric of our communities. We need them to be sustained. So that conversation really revolves around how can we support the small businesses that are part of the fabric of our community. This is a really good way we can support them as well.”

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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