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Vacant school building offers solution to a rural town’s housing shortage

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has awarded Mayville $250K to turn the building into an apartment complex

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High school building
Former high school in downtown Mayville. Photo courtesy Albrecht School Apartments, LLC

For two decades, the former high school in downtown Mayville in Dodge County has sat vacant.

Now, this community of 5,000 people, located an hour drive northwest of Milwaukee, hopes to use the old red brick school building to help solve a common problem in rural Wisconsin — a shortage of housing.

This week, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation announced it’s awarded the city $250,000 to turn the building into a 20-unit complex called the Albrecht School Apartments.

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“Mayville is an example of one of Wisconsin’s amazing communities that is rebuilding and reinvesting in their downtown, and helping local businesses get started,” WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes said. “And so we wanted to provide support in one of the critical areas of need that we’re seeing all around the state, which is new housing. “

According to a 2019 study by the Wisconsin Realtors Association, the state hasn’t been building enough homes to keep up with population growth. The resulting shortage makes it harder for businesses to recruit and retain employees, because workers struggle to find affordable, decent housing near their workplace. One way to help solve the problem, the study notes, is building more multifamily housing, like apartments.

Building new housing, though, can be difficult for rural areas, Hughes said, because many developers are hesitant to invest in those parts of the state.

“If you build in an urban community, you have a guaranteed market. You have the opportunity to do many more units at once, and you know you’re gonna fill them,” she said. “If you are investing in a rural area, you have the same costs as you have in the urban area, but you might not be able to recoup as much in rent or in sales price. “

Through grants like this one, she said, WEDC helps mitigate the risk for developers, which encourages them to build in rural areas.

“One of the biggest struggles that the lack of housing has been creating is the difficulty to attract new workers into some of the businesses to take over open positions,” said David Westphal, the owner of Mayville True Value. “I know there’s a lot of people that want to relocate to the area, but they can’t even find a place where they can live if they were to take on a job in the community. “

Many other rural parts of Dodge county have had the same issue for years, said Westphal, especially with increasing industrial development.

“There’s been lots of new hiring,” he said. “But the housing just hasn’t kept up with it. “

Andres Lezama, the owner of the building, said apartments will also help Mayville’s local businesses, which he said have struggled the past few decades, like in many other small towns in the state.

“We’re talking about 20 apartments, many of which are three-bedroom,” he said. “So you could have 60 to 80 people living there. They’re going to be soliciting business from the downtown community. “

Beyond the economic impact, he said it’ll be meaningful for the community to see the vacant building repurposed, especially for those who attended and taught at the school.

Lezama expects they’ll finish construction by April 2023, and said he already has people interested in renting.

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