Gundersen Lutheran Health System took a piece of history and made a bit of its own. The La Crosse,Wisconsin based
organization deeded a 58,000-square-foot historic brewery and surrounding land over to a developer as part of a collaborative effort to provide an affordable housing alternative in a neighborhood primed for revitalization.
Initiative Addresses Variety of Needs
Years after the former John Gund Brewery bottling house was forced to close in 1920 during Prohibition, the Sara Lee Corporation (now part of the Monsanto Company) acquired the property. However, the building stood vacant for years until Sara Lee gifted it to Gundersen Lutheran (www.gundluth. org) in 2003, and the health system started using it for warehousing, says Joan Curran, executive director of external affairs for Gundersen Lutheran.
“It needed work,” Curran says. “It wasn’t falling apart or anything, but it certainly wasn’t enhancing the community or the neighborhood.” Gundersen Lutheran decided the property should be renovated and converted into workforce housing in line with its commitment to help improve the neighborhood, reduce its need for surface parking, and give back to the community, she says.
The initiative also provides staff members with access to quality, affordable housing close to work. This meshes
well with Gundersen Lutheran’s environmental campaign because it enables some employees to walk to work. It
also preserves the historic brewery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The medical center researched developers with experience both in renovating historic buildings and in working with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic DevelopmentAgency (WHEDA). Gorman & Company, Inc. (www.GormanUSA.net) was ultimately selected.
Gorman converted the existing building into 41 spacious loft-style apartments and built an addition that holds another 45 units. After 1 year of construction, the Historic Gund Brewery Lofts were ready for occupation by September 2007.
It didn’t take long to fill the apartments, which feature exposed brick and timbers, central air, patios, high ceilings, a movie theater, community room, exercise facility, and a business center, among other amenities. “We were full almost immediately,” Curran says. “It’s been a very big success.”
Sixty-eight of the 86 apartments have rent and income limits, while the other 18 are unrestricted, according to Gorman, which manages the facility. About a quarter of the units are occupied by Gundersen Lutheran employees. Under the partnership arrangement, Gundersen Lutheran was involved in the planning phase, and its employees were allowed to apply for apartments before the general public, according to Curran. “Part of the deal was we could offer it to our employees before it was opened to the public.”
Gundersen Lutheran promoted the loft apartments through a variety of communication tools—an electronic newsletter, a weekly publication, employee updates, and a brochure. Gorman provided an incentive by eliminating the security deposit for Gundersen Lutheran employees, Curran says. The endeavor “has helped with recruiting and retention” at Gundersen Lutheran, Curran says, noting that employees are proud that their employer supported this project and
helped improve the community.
Take building resident and hospital employee Emily Hiatt. “Living close to work has simplified my life and my budget,” she says. “As a young professional and mother, living here saves us money, and gives us more time to be a family. Beyond the obvious benefits— no commute, reduced gas costs, flexibility— living close to work has changed the way I feel about where I work. They are not just my ‘employer’ anymore. Now they’re my neighbor, my community, and an organization I feel invested in.”
Foundation for Success
Curran offers the following advice to other employers who are considering undertaking a similar initiative:
Consider the benefits. Providing workforce housing can help boost your recruiting and retention efforts, in addition to addressing employee and community needs and interests.
Partner with an experienced developer and your local government. Look for a developer who does quality work and has experience working with your state’s economic development agency.
Get everyone on board. “There are a lot of different interests in this,” Curran says, referring to the employer, the
city, the developer, the economic development agency, employees, and the community. With careful planning and
communication, such a project can be successful.
Promote the program internally. Reach out to employees through your existing communication tools to spread
the word. If possible, provide an incentive (e.g., no security deposit).
Differentiate the program from low income housing. “It is important to communicate the distinction between
low-income housing and workforce housing designed to support businesses in the neighborhood,” she says.