Commonwealth Company's success has come at a cost in Fond du Lac
Sitting at a desk in his unfinished basement on Seventh Street, Louie Lange had a dream 13 years ago to build a company from the ground up.
While Lange initially wanted to stake his career as a real estate developer, his newfound passion for building would lend itself to developing Commonwealth Companies, a venture that provides housing for retirees as well as members of the general workforce in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and beyond.
With little fanfare, Commonwealth Companies has quietly made its presence known around town with its signature projects: Trinity Restaurant and St. Peter's Place re-purposed out of vacant churches and a school, as well as Riverside Senior Apartments, Trinity Artist Square and Fond du Lac Townhouses, housing developments that were once contaminated Brownfield sites.
Despite Lange's desire to give back to his hometown, his success has come at a cost. The nationally respected company has taken hits on local Facebook forums that have accused Commonwealth of everything from owning every apartment building in the city to attracting an unsavory demographic responsible for the recent uptick in the local crime rate.
"I think it's pretty disheartening when someone is taking risks and investing in the community — especially in the downtown with the quality of projects that Commonwealth is doing — and then they're being criticized and unfairly attacked particularly on social media when (Lange) is trying his best to help our community grow into the future," said Steve Jenkins, president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp. "(Lange) should be applauded for that, not demonized."
The criticism and rumors — especially those attacking the character of Commonwealth tenants — are not taken lightly by Lange and his employees.
"(Social media) has really become a medium for someone to say anything that pops into their heads — no matter how damaging or untrue it may be," Lange said. "I've seen a lot of things on there and they're flat out wrong. There aren't any secrets out there or any underhanded dealing going on. I respect people's differences in opinion, but it's getting a little too personal and out of control."
Low-income brand confusing
Lange said some community members have jumped to conclusions concerning the tenants living in Commonwealth properties based on the properties' development with Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC).
The LIHTC program provides incentives to investors to inject capital into rental apartments to create affordable housing for those who earn 80 percent or less than the county median income. Unlike Section 8 (public housing) where tenants are required to pay only 30 percent of their median income with the government picking up the balance via rent assistance vouchers, Commonwealth tenants must pay the balance themselves.
"Just because a development is labeled low-income does not mean our tenants are jobless," Lange said. "The vast majority of our tenants are every day people working in shops, trades people, retirees or teachers. I used to live in tax credit housing when I was in the U.S. Marine Corps. We believe our housing is some of the nicest in the area. What we're doing is just setting the standard for what housing should be in the community."
Before applicants are accepted, they must pass an extensive background check that considers ability to pay, past criminal history and reference checks. Lange said more than 50 percent of applicants are turned away because they fail one of these criteria.
"Good tenants attract other good tenants and our best reference is word of mouth," Lange said. "Our projects enjoy a good reputation that is built on itself."
Commonwealth owns four of 21 housing complexes in the city using tax credit money.
With all four rental properties at nearly 98 percent occupancy, Lange shakes his head at rumors that the company has billboards in Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit advertising low-income housing in Fond du Lac.
"We've never advertised using billboards, it's too expensive. We only advertise online. And second, there's plenty of people already here that want to live in our housing, so there is no need to look for people elsewhere," Lange said. "Another rumor is we give away free cell phones in order to attract people up here, we don't. Who would move a two-bedroom household up here from Milwaukee or Chicago just for a cell phone? That doesn't make any sense."
While the Internet has provided an affordable means to advertise Commonwealth rental properties in the Fond du Lac area, it also spreads misinformation at an alarming pace. The name of one Commonwealth property in Milwaukee — Fond du Lac Center — has unintentionally created a headache for Lange and may be at the source of some rumors.
Located near the intersection of Fond du Lac and Center streets, at the time Lange thought Fond du Lac Center was an ideal moniker.
"Up until two years ago it seemed like a perfect name. Someone must have seen it advertised on Craigslist and started the rumor that we were advertising down in Milwaukee for apartments up here in Fond du Lac," Lange said. "In hindsight, knowing that people were so willing to connect the dots, I wished we had named it something different."
What's disturbing to Lange is the insinuation that a recent spike in crime is attributed to low-income residents, particularly those living in his properties.
"There's this concern that low-income people are wrecking our town and the dots they're connecting is low-income means minorities and if we have minorities that means crime," Lange said. "There's this irrational fear out there of people who are different from you or I. The truth is, there's a lot more people living in Fond du Lac today that don't look like you or I. The diversity of our properties mirrors that of our community, which we're proud of."
Fond du Lac Police Chief Bill Lamb said police have stepped up efforts at numerous multi-family apartment complexes in the city due to high call volumes and the request for assistance of property managers. Complexes include Lakeside Gardens East and West and Maplewood Commons. These are not Commonwealth properties. Commonwealth properties have had no crime reports.
"We've had outstanding success at those other properties in significantly reducing crime and calls for service," Lamb said. "We're also concentrating our efforts on the Hometown Harbor apartment complex on North Seymour and Arndt streets where there was a shooting on Sept. 28, as well as Willow Village on Scott Street."
While property and violent crimes fell significantly in , a spate of shootings and vandalism events will adversely affect crime statistics, Lamb said.
"There were quite a number of unfortunate incidents jammed in a fairly short window of time and that's going to get people's attention, and it should," Lamb said.
Jenkins said the use of tax credits to build properties that enlarge the tax base and create jobs is vital to the local economy.
"Those tax credits make projects that aren't financially feasible work. It adds something back onto the tax rolls and adds employment opportunities," Jenkins said. "I know for a fact that Commonwealth is extremely respected by the state and (Lange) is awarded a lot of tax credits because of the quality of the projects that he does. They're not shabby, they're well designed and maintained. That's worth the credit to make this happen in the community."
Commonwealth Senior Vice President Jason Leffel said the last four Commonwealth projects have had a total development cost of more than $34 million. While Commonwealth has a construction division it still relies on local trades to provide services.
"We have great relationships with a number of local contractors. We couldn't do as well without them. It would be tougher for us to be as competitive as we are," Leffel said. "This in turn funnels money back into the city in multiple ways. When you can multiply that money it has a greater impact in the city."
Lange said he has a desire to help revitalize the downtown area, pointing to housing units and eateries like Trinity Restaurant and Commonwealth Coffee Company & Deli. Commonwealth's latest project — renovating the former Retlaw Theater property and adjoining buildings into apartments, offices and commercial space — has especially drawn the ire of a band of citizens dedicated to saving the historic theater from demolition.
"Some of those people wanted (Lange) to save the theater. In order for that theater to have been brought back to the character that most people remember was financially unfeasible; it never would have cash flowed," Jenkins said. "If someone would have done something nine years ago, maybe. But not now."
The proposed Retlaw project has generated much interest, Lange said.
"We're looking at putting more commercial space in that building because we have so many people calling us because they want to be a part of this," Lange said. "We need to fill the apartments above the stores because that's what is going to fill the store fronts and make the downtown more lively.
"And if you can create a catalytic project that's going to spawn three or five projects after that, that seems like a good investment of taxpayer money," Lange added.
Jenkins said developers like Commonwealth should be supported and not vilified by the community.
"It's so frustrating to hear people jumping from A to Z without knowing what's in between, and that damages our community and runs the risk of having business leave and invest somewhere else," Jenkins said. "People need to start thinking more globally about what this means to my community where I live and where I work."
Contact Colleen Kottke at [email protected]; or ()
Since opening the doors of the Commonwealth Coffee & Deli shop nine months ago, Commonwealth has kicked back more than $7, to local non-profits through sales at its new eatery. Every three months, a group of residents selects a nonprofit to receive 10 percent of the profits from the shop located on the first floor of Riverside Senior Apartments on Macy Street and a seed donation from Commonwealth Construction. In the bigger picture, Commonwealth Companies as made more than $, to local non-profit organizations including the Fond du Lac YMCA and Arc of Fond du Lac.
Commonwealth Receives LIHTC Awards for Four Wisconsin Developments
On Tuesday, April 27, , Governor Tony Evers announced the award of $ million in federal and state housing tax credits to help advance affordable housing and economic recovery in Wisconsin. The tax credit awards from Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) will support 33 housing projects in Wisconsin including all four development submissions from Commonwealth Development Corporation (“Commonwealth”).
“This is a highly competitive process where I believe there were close to $60 million in requests,” said Dan Kroetz, Senior Vice President of Development, Commonwealth Development Corporation. “It takes a lot of commitment and time to complete these applications and we couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome for all four of our submissions.”
Commonwealth’s four Wisconsin developments include:
Brooke Street Lofts (Fond du Lac) – Located on the same street as their Corporate Headquarters, Brooke Street Lofts will be an adaptive reuse of the previous Northern Casket Company and Winnebago Cheese Company buildings. This $M development will consist of units of 1, 2, & 3-bedroom homes for families making at or below 80% of the area median income (AMI). Originally built in , this property is currently listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It has been vandalized and considered abandoned for multiple years and this is a great opportunity to bring it back to life with valuable housing for the community. Development partner: WPHD.
Superior View Cottages (Ashland) – This $12M new construction development will consist of 50 1, 2, & 3-bedroom homes within 5 cottage-style buildings. Located near downtown Ashland and the Chequamegon Bay, the community will provide affordable homes for individuals or families making at or below 80% of the AMI, and will include private garages, a clubhouse, playground, and other desired amenities.
Golden Venture Apartments (Kaukauna) – In partnership with the Kaukauna Housing Authority, Golden Venture Apartments will be a $M rehab of the existing 3-story building along with 2 other smaller buildings. The property was originally constructed in as a senior (62+) property which will now convert out of public housing through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. Through construction, we will combine some smaller units into larger units resulting in a total of 66 1 & 2-bedroom homes in the current building and 8 additional units in the other 2 buildings. These homes will be available for seniors (62+) making at or below 60% of the AMI.
Greenway Cottages (Mosinee) – This new unit cottage-style development is a second phase to our existing Indianhead Cottages community. The community will target families making at or below 80% of the AMI and will include 2 & 3-bedroom homes within (2) unit buildings and (1) 4-unit building. Similar to Superior View Cottages, residents will have private garages and access to a playground, fitness center, business center, and more.
“Wisconsin’s successful tax credit programs continue to advance equitable access to affordable housing and economic opportunity for the people of our state – supporting our workforce, our families and the well-being of our communities,” said Gov. Evers. “These tax credits drive economic vitality, leverage private capital, strengthen the local employment base and provide housing security for our most vulnerable residents. As we’ve seen, demand for these highly competitive housing tax credits continues to outstrip supply. That’s why my state budget proposal seeks to increase the available state credits to $10 million per year from the current $7 million.”
All four of these developments will be done in collaboration with Commonwealth Construction Corp. (General Contractor) and M+A Design, Inc. (Architect). Watch for these properties to open between Spring & Summer,
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Commonwealth Developments awarded WHEDA tax credits for Brooke Street Loft development
FOND DU LAC - Commonwealth Development Corporation is among the businesses that will share $ million in federal and state housing tax credits meant to advance affordable housing and economic recovery in Wisconsin.
The tax credit awards from Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority will support 33 housing projects in the state, including all four development submissions from Commonwealth.
The Brooke Street Lofts project, located down the street from Commonwealth's headquarters in Fond du Lac, will be an adaptive reuse of the previous Northern Casket Company and Winnebago Cheese Company buildings.
The $ million development will consist of units of 1, 2, and 3-bedroom homes for families making at or below 80% of the area's median income, according to Dan Kroetz, senior vice president of development.
Originally built in , the property is currently listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The original factory flooring, exterior and interior exposed bricks will be incorporated into the design of the lofts.
Planned amenities within a common area between the buildings include a community room, property management office, computer room and fitness center.
The old factory buildings have sat vacant for years and been the victim of vandalism, Kroetz said. The company views the project as an opportunity to bring historic structures back to life and add valuable housing to the community.
Fond du Lac Redevelopment Authority had been seeking developers to transform the space into residences for the River Park neighborhood, also known as the Hamilton Area Neighborhood District.
According to WHEDA, Commonwealth was awarded $, in tax credit funds for the Fond du Lac project.
“This is a highly competitive process where I believe there were close to $60 million in requests,” Kroetz said. “It takes a lot of commitment and time to complete these applications and we couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome for all four of our submissions.”
Other Commonwealth developments awarded WHEDAtax credits include the following:
- A total of $ million in state and federal credits was awarded to create affordable housing with a $12 million Superior View Cottages project in Ashland, located near Chequamegon Bay.
- In partnership with the Kaukauna Housing Authority, a $ million Golden Venture Apartments project will rehab three existing buildings into homes and apartments for low income seniors. Commonwealth received $, in tax credits for the project.
- A unit cottage style development, Greenway Cottages in Mosinee, will offer families similar amenities to Superior View Cottages, including private garages and access to a playground, fitness and business centers. A total of $, in tax credit funds was awarded.
All four developments are slated to open in spring and summer,
Visit commonwealthco.net for more information.
Contact Sharon Roznik at or [email protected] Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/reporterroz/
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