For more than 20 years, the city of Ashland has been seeking to sell a parcel of property located on the northwest corner of the Ellis Avenue and Sixth Street West.
The location is the former site of Quearm Oil, which ceased operations in the early 1990s. In 1996 and 1997, the site was part of the Ashland Central Railyard cleanup, and for nearly two decades, the city of Ashland has unsuccessfully sought a buyer for the prime commercial property.
Recently, Kwik Trip, Inc., a privately held, La Crosse-based corporation with more than 400 stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, approached the city about the purchase of the 1.05 acre parcel along with an adjacent property measuring 100 by 125 feet adjacent to the first parcel. The combined property would be about 12,500 square feet, or a combined total of 1.31 acres.
The city has been asking $140,000 for the first property, and Kwik Trip agreed to pay the same per-foot cost for the second parcel, which would have made an asking price of $179,195 for both properties. Kwik Trip has submitted an offer to purchase of $180,000.
According to Ashland Director of Planning and Development April Kroner, the total investment anticipated by Kwik Trip for the project is $4.5 million to $5 million, which she said would yield a project with an assessed valuation of $1.2 to $2 million, based on similar projects the firm has undertaken in Wisconsin.
The report made by the planning department to the Ashland city Council said the firm would be hiring some 12 full-time co-workers and 18 part-time workers, for a total of 30 employee hires.
“As an employer, Kwik Trip always pays above minimum wage and provides benefits, including an incentive pay program where 40 percent of total profits are shared with the co-workers,” the report noted, adding that in 2015, Kwik Trip employees will receive 13 percent of their pay as a cash bonus and 7.1 percent of their pay as a contribution to their 401k/ profit sharing plan.
The report also noted that the building would be of all brick construction and “attractively designed.”
Despite the favorable report, Brian Matthys, general manager for Midland Services, spoke against the sale, saying that it would likely have dire consequences for the Midland Services convenience store and gas station located directly across Ellis Avenue from the proposed Kwik Trip project. Matthys said traffic numbers at the intersection didn’t justify the siting of two convenience stores at the location.
“It just isn’t going to work,” he said. “It just isn’t in the numbers.”
Matthys said that if a second convenience store moved into the area, it was likely that Midland Services would be forced to close their operation.
“We have been in that location since 1979,” he said. “Midland Services is, I believe, the third oldest business in the city of Ashland.”
Matthys said the Cooperative returned about $50,000 in gas patronage to Co-Op members every year.
“In addition about $4,000 goes to the high school as part of the Cash For Kids program,” he said. “That will be gone.”
Matthys said the city wouldn’t see a net economic benefit from the opening of a new convenience store, merely shifting employment from one operation to another.
Matthys said Midland employees also did not make minimum wages, and also received job benefits. He said that Midland employees usually stayed for the long term.
“It is a good place to work,” he said.
He asked the council to consider the best use of the corner from the viewpoint of the comprehensive plan.
“Do we send the profits from that corner somewhere out of town to someone who owns a convenience store chain or do you want to keep those dollars in the community?” Matthys asked.
He said city council members had an opportunity to choose to use the corner for something that would attract more business into town rather than one that would replace a local business.
Also speaking before the council was Kwik Trip Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Scott Teigan, who told the council that Kwik Trip “is not just another convenience store.”
“We really pride ourselves in the groceries and the food we sell in the store,” he said. “We do sell gas, but we really come into the business in the food end, not the gas end.”
He said that Kwik Trip was very different from most retail stores, because of their compensation of employees.
“This is money that will come back into the community,” he said, asserting that most of the people involved in the store would be local people. He reiterated that no one at Kwik Trip made minimum wage.
“We want our people to make a living,” he said.
Teigan said that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had last year voted Kwik Trip as the best place to work in Wisconsin.
“We were voted fourth or fifth in Iowa by the Des Moines Register and voted second or third best in Minnesota by the Minneapolis Tribune,” he continued. “We are for real. We have 16,000 co-workers and we treat people the way they wish to be treated.”
In the discussion by the council, Council President Pat Kinney said the decision was particularly difficult because his grandfather had been on the Midland board years before he had been born. However he said as a council member, he had specific responsibilities that he had to live up to.
“As a council we look at this, we look at how that property is zoned; there are lots of things that are allowable uses, as a council it isn’t our place or job to decide this business yes, that business, no,” he said. “We look at — ‘Is it zoned for that?’ — and if a conditional use permit is needed, we look at what conditions to put on that.”
Kinney acknowledged that there might not be enough traffic at the Ellis Avenue - Sixth Street intersection to justify a second convenience store in the long term, but said that was not the council’s task to act on.
“Regardless of what our feelings are personally, our job is to look at the zoning and the process here to go through the process and determine what is permissible,” he said.
“For me personally, there is a lot of history. I can’t help but think of how things have changed from the early days of Midland when my grandfather was involved. As a councilor, I have an obligation to do what I am supposed to do here, but it’s really hard for me to see another change in what was an organization that was so important to farmers, and started by farmers.”
In the end, the council voted unanimously to sell the property to Kwik Trip.
Following the vote, Matthys said the council was acting without regard to the new comprehensive plan being developed by the city.
“They are acting in the old way of how we did comprehensive planning, without any thought to what is right for the citizens of the city of Ashland,” he said. “They are only looking at bottom line for the city.”
Matthys said competition from Kwik Trip would definitely hurt the Midland TownMart operation.
“I would like to see something developed in that area that would bring new people, create jobs,” he said. “Nobody is going to drive from Minneapolis or Eau Claire to Ashland to visit a new convenience store. This does nothing to dive new business to this area.”