Communities that lose UW campuses could be given $2M to redevelop the property

UW system has closed branch campuses in Washington, Richland and Fond du Lac counties

A sign says the school name.
A sign is displayed Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The closures of three Universities of Wisconsin branch campuses have left empty buildings and hundreds of acres of unused land in Richland, Washington and Fond du Lac counties.

A proposed GOP bill could give those communities $2 million to redevelop the former two-year campus sites. 

In-person classes will end at UW-Milwaukee at Washington County and UW-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac in June. UW-Platteville at Richland has been without students since May 2023.

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Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, told members of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities on Wednesday that the $2 million for each community could be used at the discretion of the counties.

But he anticipates local governments will use the funds for economic development opportunities or housing.

The bill was originally created for Richland, but eventually expanded to include Fond du Lac and Washington counties. The total amount allocated in the bill is $12 million, with the extra funds reserved for future closures.

“We would not be surprised at all if other two-year campuses face this decision down the road,” Marklein said.   

After June, there will be 10 branch campuses remaining in the UW system.

Richland County had a 75-year agreement with UW system

Richland County had a 75-year memorandum of agreement with the UW system that outlined the county’s role in maintaining the buildings and property and the UW’s role at the site.

The loss of the school meant the UW system was no longer paying utilities at the school.

Marklein said if passed, Richland County would receive the $2 million first.

Richland County Board Chair Marty Brewer was not at the committee meeting Tuesday and could not immediately be reached for comment. Brewer previously told WPR losing the two-year campus in his community was an economic loss of at least $1.5 million.

Fond du Lac, Washington counties say redeveloping campuses will cost millions

Fond du Lac County Executive Sam Kaufman said he wasn’t surprised when the UW-Oshkosh campus closed in his community – the school went from a high of 1,000 students in 1973 to last year’s enrollment of 240 students.

But Kaufman said UW system President Jay Rothman did not reach out to the community before the decision was made. He criticized the UW system for not making the two-year campuses more specialized and instead merging them with the four-year campuses.

“The fact that (Rothman) is making the decision now to close some of our campuses, I fully get, and I agree with him,” Kaufman said. “But for the counties to go through and make changes, (that) will take substantial money.”

Kaufman said he’s looked at the possibility of a day care area for part of the 62-acre campus. He has also talked to law enforcement about using part of the property.

Washington County Executive Josh Shoemann said he has had dozens of offers from developers and non-profit organizations for the 80-acre, 200,000-square-foot property that used to house UW-Milwaukee’s branch campus.

But Shoemann said there is a lot of work to be done before the property can be sold, including a $1.7 million electrical upgrade.

“I’m not asking you to save higher education, you can’t do that, but I am asking you to help with this transition,” Shoemann said speaking in favor of the bill. “We now are staring down the barrel of a campus that will be vacated at the end of the semester.”