Fairbanks Flats, A Success Story

Hard work, patience behind preservation of history.

WE ADMIT IT: The Daily News was among the skeptics who thought the dreams of the Fairbanks Flats preservationists were naive and unachievable. Who would want to sink big money into the dilapidated group of buildings? Market forces were lined up against it.

The site near the riverfront north of Henry Avenue Bridge might one day support residential redevelopment, but if that day ever came the market likely would dictate upscale new housing consistent with other Beloit projects along the Rock River.

While many saw the historic significance of the Flats – a segregated housing project dating back to the early 20th century – few believed it could realistically be redeveloped and preserved. Instead, most believed the future held demolition of the old buildings with the site marked, perhaps, by a commemorative structure or small museum.

BUT THE TRUE BELIEVERS refused to accept conventional wisdom and give up on their dream. When one idea after another fell through, and pressure mounted to take down the Flats, supporters kept pressing for more time, more creativity, more commitment.

Today, that effort begins the process of paying off with the scheduled groundbreaking for the Flats revitalization. A Madison-based developer, Gorman and Company, plans to convert the site to 16 rent-to-own townhouses, maintaining the look and feel of the historic design. The company will begin construction yet this fall and hopes to have the buildings ready for occupancy in about a year.

Thus, the site will retain its historic standing, with ties back to the great migration of African Americans from the south to the industrial north. It is one of the few remaining examples of segregated housing from that period.

THERE ARE TIMES when it is gratifying to say, “we were wrong.” This is one of them.

And it’s a welcome reminder never to forget that human commitment and perseverance, in the face of what may seem insurmountable odds, can still win out.

Local advocates for the Fairbanks Flats neighborhood deserve to feel great pride in this accomplishment. Their refusal to give up has been vindicated. Likewise, partners at City Hall who remained patient and kept looking for new ideas and creative solutions, share in this moment. Their persistent approach was critical.

The “market” is cold and unemotional, evaluating possibilities based strictly on risk-and-reward. But when people bring their collective devotion together, sometimes the market responds in unexpected ways.

Sure, challenges remain. If you build it, will they come, making the project pay off financially? We hope so.

This time, we’re going to join the optimists. Good job, to all.