History reborn at ‘The Flats’

Back in 1999, when a small group of people dreamed of resurrecting an important part of Beloit’s history, there were plenty of doubters.

Nine years later, the dream has come true. Redevelopment of the Fairbanks Flats is nearly complete, and some units are already done. None have been rented out yet but are available to rent. Move-in begins Oct. 1.

“We will be done with the majority of the construction by the end of September,” said Mike Ash, project manager for Madison-based developer Gorman and Company, the company spearheading the redevelopment project.

Thirteen low-income units and three market value units are available to rent. A rent-to-own option is available after 15 years of renting a unit.

About 200-300 people toured the Fairbanks Flats last Saturday at Beloit’s Heritage Days celebration, Ash said.

“We’re very excited about it,” Ash said. “We got a lot of support from people throughout the community.”

Ash praised the cooperation from both the city and the Fairbanks Flats Revitalization Group in working together to preserve the historical Flats.

“They were nothing short of spectacular to work with,” he said.

The Fairbanks Flats were built somewhere between 1917 and 1920 when Fairbanks Morse recruited African-Americans from the South to replace the workers who had gone to serve in World War II. The Flats themselves were the center of much controversy as the city council, mayor and west side residents did not want them built, said Beloit College theater professor Amy Sarno, who taught a class on the Flats last fall. Eventually the Flats were built but at first were not considered a part of Beloit.

“They were a community set outside of the city,” Sarno said.

Sarno and her students are still attempting to find the date in which the Flats were vacated and began to deteriorate.

Throughout the years, there has been much debate as to whether the vacant, dilapidated buildings should be reconstructed or torn down. Although an eyesore to the community, the Flats represented a significant piece of Beloit’s history.

The goal of the Fairbanks Flats Revitilization Group was to preserve Beloit’s diverse history, said Ken Ware, former president of the reviltization group.

“History in any community should be diversified and kept,” Ware said. “Why not have African-American history preserved?”

The city acquired the buildings in 1999, and they are on the National and Wisconsin Registers of Historic Places. The Fairbanks Flats are one of only two remaining buildings in the United States constructed for segregated company housing.

Francis Vance, the new president of the Fairbanks Flats Revitalization Group, has been working on the project since 1999 and calls the revitalization a “big achievement.”

“It’s a big accomplishment,” he said. “It just shows what a small group of people who are dedicated and concerned about the community can achieve. A small group of people stuck together, and it was a great achievement. I’d like to give all of them a lot of credit for the endurance.”

As he looks to the future, Vance’s main goal is to construct a historical marker on the site. After that, he’ll be setting up a new direction for the revitalization group.

A project many years in the making will soon be completed, but the Flats’ history will live on in the form of theater. Using the research conducted during her class last fall as well as current research, Sarno and her students are working on a play about the Flats’ history. A script is in the works but will take a long time to complete as more research and feedback is needed, Sarno said.

Once the play is finished, Sarno and her students hope to make it part of Beloit’s curriculum and eventually tour the play around Wisconsin and the United States. The issues brought up in the play are pertinent today in terms of the changing immigration population in the United States, Sarno said.

“A lot of the same things are relevant,” she said. “This opens up a whole new dialogue for educational forums.”