(WORT) — Kraft Heinz took many by surprise last November when it announced it would cease production at its Madison Oscar Mayer plant by early 2017.
News of the closure dismayed many neighborhood residents, but the mood at a listening session on the future of the Northside facility Wednesday was also tinged with excitement and optimism.
Northside Madison Alders Rebecca Kemble and Larry Palm hosted the session.
Kemble says they heard about a dozen formal and informal proposals from city staff, community members, and groups.
“Many of them talked about the site as a transportation hub, several talked about light rail,” Kemble says. “There was another proposal for the retention pond, for the city to purchase that and turn it into a park.”
Matt Mikolajewski, Economic Development Director for the City of Madison, attended the session and presented the city’s priorities for the site.
“The City’s very interested in seeing the site remain in an employment use,” Mikolajewski says. “We hope we can even have some food manufacturers locate at the plant.”
Mikolajewski says Kraft Heinz has had the site up for sale for about a month now, but that it hasn’t attracted any offers yet.
Alder Larry Palm says the city is already weighing the pros and cons of purchasing the property itself if a buyer with a proposal they like doesn’t come forward.
Palm says it can be worth it for the city to involve itself even in slow-moving developments like the Royster-Clark area if the community believes in the project.
“It is no question that these are long, drawn-out processes,” Palm says. “But people will accept a little bit of blight if they know that that’s just temporary.”
Although many can see the Oscar Mayer site’s potential, residents also see some cause for concern.
Anita Weier lives on Madison’s Northside and is a former city alder. She says people at the listening session were right to insist that Kraft Heinz be held responsible for cleaning up any pollution, and that any development benefit the neighborhood.
“I think that people were right to bring it up and make sure that officials pay attention to it. And I think they will,” Weier says.
Kemble says her “dream scenario” would be for the site to bring together local producers in search of bottling services and prime access to the Chicago market.
“A parallel conversation going on before we even heard about Oscar Mayer closing was developing a food innovation corridor on the Northside,” Kemble says. “There’s demand for food-related production services that could go into that site.”
For now, Madison is free to dream. But everyone seems to agree that the devil of development is in the details, and it will probably be years before the Oscar Mayer facility is up and running again in any capacity.