Whether we like it or not, the COVID-19 pandemic is coming with us into its third year.
And like we thought in last year’s edition of “Stories to Watch,” so much of what the next parts of the pandemic will look like are yet to be seen, even as we’ve managed to regain some of the things we lost – like some cherished community events like Syttende Mai and in-person education – in the last year. But what we don’t yet know is when we’ll be able to ditch the masks for good, and how long schools will need to keep some form of their safety protocols to mitigate COVID-19 spread.
That’s why the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic will be our top story to watch for 2022. It won’t be the only thing that Hub reporters are keeping an eye on as this next year progresses – we’ll also be watching continued development both in the city’s downtown and on the west side, and the two things that preoccupy the Stoughton Area Board of Education for at least the first part of the year.
At our Story to Watch No. 2, we’ll follow along as new housing comes to Verona, both near the downtown and to the northern end, where a 400-unit project off of Shady Oak Lane is under consideration and another located just south of Hwy. PD has started to move dirt.
Story No. 3 will be the expansion of the Verona Technology Park – first with the addition of Costco that was announced in early 2021, and the development of a $200 million pharmaceutical company on the park’s southern side.
And at No. 4 will be the expansion of the Badger Prairie Needs Network’s space, as it doubles in size along East Verona Avenue, growing its potential for serving the community at the same time.
And finally, our fifth story to watch will be how the Verona Area School District meets its financial needs for the 2022-23 school year – whether that means cuts to programming, an attempt at an operating referendum, or possibly both.
1. COVID-19 continues
Will there be an end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight? Who’s to say, but it’s unfortunately a story we’re going to continue to follow as it likely marches into year 3 this spring.
Our focus will be mainly on what the future of COVID-19 mitigation strategies will look like, especially in school environments and other public spaces like stores and indoor sporting events.
Public Health Madison and Dane County’s mask mandate will at least have us wearing masks into at least the start of February, and after that, school districts will have a decision to make: Do they remain universally masked, or do they go mask-optional?
There will be consequences and benefits to both options. In a fully masked environment, all staff, students and visitors will be required to mask, but close contact rules will be looser, meaning the definition of a close contact starts at three feet, not six, and people only have to quarantine if they were in a space where masks aren’t worn, such as lunch times, or if they’re exhibiting symptoms. In a mask-optional environment, people would be able to choose whether they wanted to mask up indoors, but the number of close contacts, and subsequently the number student and staff quarantines, would be much higher as the range of space to qualify would grow to six feet.
It’s still yet to be seen if some of the traditional and quintessential events, such as high school graduation and Hometown Days, will be back to their pre-pandemic style, or will still happen in modified forms.
2. City’s north side continues to grow
More residential development is on the way in 2022, with a projected increase in multi-family homes and apartments this year.
City administrator Adam Sayre told the Press there will be plenty of activity happening on the north side of Verona. In single-family housing developments, workers are now grading the land to build roads into the Whispering Coves subdivision along County Hwys. M and PD, which “probably will see some houses popping up out of the ground after summer, I would imagine,” he said.
The Kettle Creek North development just north of Country View Elementary School will also add some additional phases this year, extending further northwards, Sayre said, and the Woods at Cathedral Point will also add additional phases in 2022.
The bulk of this year’s residential developments will be multi-family, with the construction of Sugar Creek Commons expected to wrap up later this year, he said, and another project at the former Sugar Creek Elementary School site slated to begin soon.
“Obviously we’re taking down the school, but that one is going to start here pretty soon, and with some Workforce Housing units in the back.”
Sayre said the city’s single-family residential development has held pretty steady in the past few years, while the number of multi-family permits has varied depending on current projects.
“Right now our multi-family numbers are going to be higher than in past years, with Sugar Creek Commons,” he said. “Also an apartment project was approved at the Woods at Cathedral Point, and I think they're going to try to start that this year as well.”
3. Technology park growing
Verona’s busy technology park is set to grow in 2022, with expansions of existing businesses and the addition of another.
The Costco warehouse project is on track to open in summer or early fall, city administrator Adam Sayre told the Press, along with some public improvements for the intersection of County Hwys. N and PD. There will be some work done in the area along Hwy. 18/151, adding an auxiliary lane from Hwy. 69 to Epic Lane that will be completed later this year.
Sayre said MillporeSigma is in the process of wrapping up their recent expansion and KSW Construction has some additional buildings that are going up on their site later in 2022.
The latest addition to the park was made last month when Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals announced the purchase of 13 acres for a planned drug manufacturing facility, laboratory and associated buildings covering around 110,00 square feet. Construction is expected to begin this winter, and when the estimated $200 million-$250 million project is completed, it will create around 250 jobs for the area.
Sayre said he expected work on the project to begin soon, with grading and earth-moving work.
“(It’s) going to start here pretty quickly, I imagine it could be a month,” he said.
4. BPNN grows to double its size
Badger Prairie Needs Network is growing again – but not just in terms of square footage. This time, it’s planned to also be in its scope of services.
Last year, Dane County invested $2 million into launching a new job training initiative, which would be hosted in a 4,800-square foot expansion of the pantry’s current building.
The pantry’s leadership broke ground on the expansion in fall 2021 and anticipate completion in spring this year.
The building expansion will allow BPNN, through its partnership with the Latino Academy, to strengthen the capacity of the latter’s transportation-related job training program. The Latino Academy, which serves 1,200 adults annually, offers a commercial driver’s license program.
The training center’s initial focus will be preparing under-served communities who were hit harder when their service-industry jobs dried up because of the pandemic, to find jobs in the transportation industry.
The expansion, which grows BPNN’s building size by 50%, will also help the pantry re-launch its weekend community meal program, which has been on hold since March last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The meal program is intended to fill the meal gap when school lunch and senior meal programs are not available on weekends.
The expansion is also planned to provide space for job training sessions and wellness programming, as well as educational programming such as nutrition, financial management and yoga.
The additional space and programming is part of BPNN executive director Maggie Gleason’s goal to bring a more holistic approach to BPNN’s services, she said, focusing on the entire mind, body and spirit.
“I am very excited about this new chapter for Badger Prairie Needs Network and the impact these programs can have on generations of residents,” she said during a news conference in May last year.
The $2 million in funding for BPNN’s building expansion came from Dane County’s local aid allocation of the American Rescue Plan Act funds.
5. Tough budgets ahead
It’s shaping up to be a difficult year, budget-wise, for the Verona Area School District.
District administrators are predicting a $5.8 million deficit for the 2022-23 school year, and the amount of Elementary and Secondary School Relief (ESSER) funds it gets, about $3.1 million in all, won’t be enough to make up the gap. And while administrators didn’t hint at a possible operating referendum that could allow the district to exceed its revenue limit for the year, school board members did, and want to know their options.
Much of the funding issue stems from the 2021-23 biennial budget, where the state Legislature passed a two-year budget that provides no additional per-pupil increases that a district can levy, unlike in previous years. The reasoning behind it was that school districts across the state should use the federal funding they received to cover the gaps, but for many like VASD, the amount of federal ESSER funds won’t be enough to bridge it.
Further complicating the issue will be a steep rise in cost of living and wage adjustments for district staff, which were estimated to be around 5% at the end of 2021 going into the new year.
Referendum talks among the board are currently preliminary, and it’s not clear whether that’ll be the option the board ultimately goes for. Adversely, it could choose to reduce its budget, much of which would need to come from staff reductions across the district.