School board members in Hudson, Wis., thought they had a sure thing when voters last April approved spending $8.25 million to buy the abandoned dog track on the south edge of town for a badly needed second high school.
But those plans put the board at odds with the City Council, which turned down a rezoning request that would have allowed the school to be built but also would have taken one-third of the city's commercial real estate off the tax rolls.
After two years of efforts to address Hudson's crowded schools, the district now must go back to the blackboard and start over again this month.
School officials remain puzzled why, if the rezoning wasn't going to fly, the city sent no signals as the school board undertook months of planning, presented a districtwide referendum -- approved by 56 percent of the voters -- and spent money hiring consultants to evaluate the school site.
"That's a good question," said school board President Tom Holland, who was surprised and disappointed by last month's decision. "I wish I could answer it for you."
It's not that simple, Mayor Alan Burchill said. Zoning applications can only be evaluated on their merits when they go to decision-makers.
"You can't say to somebody, 'No, don't even bother, because we're going to turn this down,'" he said.
Burchill said the city's Plan Commission voted 6-0 to reject the school proposal after a thorough evaluation, and the council's vote reflected strong support.
"I don't think anyone thought this was going to be a slam dunk one way or the other," he said.
Growth makes demands
St. Croix County is the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin and will remain in that position at least through 2030, according to the state's Department of Administration. The effects are putting a strain on Hudson's fast-growing school system, said Superintendent Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten.
The district's high school is now at capacity as far as classrooms are concerned, she said. Common areas such as the cafeteria, halls and media center are too small to handle students, and parking space is rented from a nearby church.
And it's going to get worse soon because the middle school is over capacity, even though three classrooms from a nearby elementary school have been pressed into service.
"We have the largest school for grades six, seven and eight in the state of Wisconsin," Bowen-Eggebraaten said.
At the same time, that growth has made economic development a key issue for the city.
The empty dog track, owned by Croixland Properties, a Florida-based casino operation, generates nearly $100,000 a year in taxes, including about $23,000 for the school district, Burchill said. A development there would make it even more lucrative, perhaps yielding more than $1 million annually in taxes.
"Proper planning is a big responsibility. Sure, the comprehensive plan can be changed, but taking a third of the commercial property off the tax rolls is a big deal," Burchill said.
Track stands empty
When the school board began looking at space issues in 2010, the former St. Croix Meadows dog track site -- empty since 2001 -- quickly presented itself as a possible solution.
Wisconsin voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment to allow parimutuel gambling in 1987, clearing the way for construction of five dog tracks in the state.
With state licensing limiting competition, gambling businesses anticipated big profits for years to come. What they didn't expect was that, just two days before the $40 million, state-of-the-art Hudson dog track opened in 1991, a federal court decision would find that same gambling amendment gave the state's Indian tribes the right to open casinos.
One by one, the tracks folded as patrons spurned the tracks in favor of casinos. After losing millions of dollars, St. Croix Meadows closed.
The 126-acre site has stood abandoned for more than a decade, its palatial 372,000-square-foot grandstand and office complex overlooking an empty parking lot on one side and an overgrown racing oval on the other.
For now, the school board has begun "looking for the next best solution" to address long- and short-term space needs, Bowen-Eggebraaten said.
She and Holland said they will draw lessons from the episode in communicating better with the City Council.
"We've always been partners in a number of areas," Bowen-Eggebraaten said. "This is just one area where we disagreed."
Burchill concurred. "We have excellent schools. There's always going to be disagreements on some things," he said. "That doesn't make this right or wrong. There was just a disagreement."
Jim Anderson 651-735-0999