‘A Lot of Pride’

‘Flats’ project culmination of hard work

With a can-do attitude and resilient spirit, anything is possible – at least that was the message sent at the Fairbanks Flats groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday.

And the dozens who gathered – including community members, city and state officials and former Flats residents – to witness the culmination of years of hard work couldn’t deny that the City of Beloit has exhibited just that in making the project a reality.

“Who would have thought, several years ago, this would really come to fruition?” City Council President and Fairbanks Flats Committee Chair Terrence Monahan said.

“We had every opportunity to throw in the towel and say, ‘Look, we tried,’ but I think to our credit, this city just doesn’t give up,” he added. “We’re a persistent city, a resilient city, and I think this project is an example of that.”

Other members of both the Fairbanks Flats steering committee and Neighborhood Revitalization Group agreed Tuesday was a reason to celebrate. For steering committee member, Wanda Sloan, the reason was twofold.

“This is the most wonderful birthday gift ever,” she said, adding that it wouldn’t have been possible without a strong partnership between city staff and citizens.

“I’d really like to thank Larry Arft. When Larry first became city manager, he told me he had heard about this project and I could be reassured he was going to work with Fairbanks Flats, and if there was anything we could possibly do to save them, that’s what the city would do. And he kept his word,” Sloan added. “He came in with a totally different attitude (from the former city manager), and it just has made all the difference in the world.”

The commitment of Madison-based developer Gorman and Company, since it first got involved about two years ago, to making the project work, as well as funding and involvement from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, also helped get it off the ground.

Gorman and Company will transform the Fairbanks Flats into 16 rent-to-own, affordable housing units for low- to moderate-income families and people with disabilities.

WHEDA will be footing a large portion of the reconstruction bill, contributing about $1.94 million in tax credits to keep the historic structures standing.

“We’re doing more than simply building a building. We’re giving folks a chance to build wealth and eventually achieve home ownership,” said WHEDA Community Development Director John Schultz.

The City of Beloit also essentially donated the property to Gorman and Company, and is contributing a $150,000 interest-free loan to help finance the Flats makeover, City Manager Larry Arft said.

Along with strengthening partnerships and allowing the opportunity for home ownership, the project will preserve a key piece of African American history in Beloit – something proponents seem to be most happy about.

First built in 1917, the Fairbanks Flats are on the National and Wisconsin registers of historic places and are one of only two buildings in the United States constructed for segregated company housing.

Those who used to live in the Flats still recall the family environment and camaraderie that seemed to surround the structures, and hope that will be revived when the project is completed.

“I raised my three sons there as a single mother, and we took a lot of pride in those apartments. It was just a nice, family atmosphere – a nice place to raise kids,” Beloit resident Floy Givhan recalled. “I hope it can be that way again.”

Fellow Flats resident Lula Belle Brown – the only remaining Beloiter who lived in the apartments as a first generation worker – fondly recalled her time there as well, and expressed her happiness at seeing this day come.

“I told Hugo (Henry) I’d be here if he had to roll me here in a wheelchair,” she joked.

Construction is set to begin on the Fairbanks Flats in about two to three weeks, said Tamika Hull, the development associate overseeing the project for Gorman and Company.

Contracts are still being awarded, but Gorman follows the Emerging Business Enterprise (EBE) program, which means it strives to hire at least 25 percent minorities to work on the project. The company also hopes to get local people involved in construction, she added.

The Flats likely will be completed in spring 2008, and ready for occupancy shortly after, Hull said.