FOX 11 Investigates potential of vacant rail yard property

Ashland Avenue Rail Yard, Green Bay (Photo Courtesy Mark Leland/WLUK)

GREEN BAY (WLUK) -- Large parcels of vacant land with development potential within the city of Green Bay can be tough to find. The city of Green Bay is moving forward with a plan approved last fall to develop vacant land along the Fox River, south of downtown. The $13.5 million development project is being called The Shipyard, featuring a waterfront stadium, restaurant and indoor concert venue.

But there’s another roughly 30 acres of empty, vacant land not too far away from The Shipyard site, currently not bringing in a dime in tax dollars. This property is known as the Ashland Avenue rail yard.

Neighborhoods between 5th and 7th streets abruptly come to a stop on three sides of the rail yard. The fourth leads toward the Fox River, where The Shipyard is proposed.

The rail yard is a vast wasteland owned by Canadian National Railroad, hidden away with some fencing and "No Trespassing" signs left up by former owners. And since it is owned by a railroad, the property is tax exempt, not producing a single tax dollar for the city.

“It's really a big piece of property and it is going to waste,” said Guy Zima, who is the 9th district city alderman where the property is located.

Other than signs aimed at keeping people out, and a pile of discarded railroad ties, there's nothing linking the land to its thriving past. For decades it was home to Wisconsin Central Railroad. The rail yard was an economic hub for goods and passengers.

Canadian National purchased the rail lines in 2001. The following year CN signaled the beginning of the end.

“We worked and there was really an attempt to keep that intermodal station there. CN felt it wasn't economically feasible and decided to shut it down,” said Kevin Vonck, director of economic development for the city of Green Bay.

The city and Brown County tried for years to get CN to reopen the rail yard. It served as a needed link between ship traffic in the port and trucks on our highways. County executive Troy Streckenbach, was part of a committee to reopen the rail yard facility, and says that link is vital to attracting and keeping manufacturing business.

“At the end of the day what we looked at was what's the most cost effective way to make sure the county can remain competitive in moving products in and out of our markets,” said Streckenbach.

But by 2013 CN pulled up all 10 lines of track through what's known as the Ashland Avenue rail yard.

CN made it pretty clear, it was going to take up its tracks and leave the place empty.

“CN again just felt there wasn't an interest in keeping it there,” said Vonck.

Last fall, development plans just several blocks from The Shipyard got the green light from the city's redevelopment authority. Focus on The Shipyard and its economic potential got FOX 11 Investigates asking questions of city leaders about the nearby rail yard.

“This one has been on our radar maybe a few years out but I think as we move forward with The Shipyard and outdoor events center and looking at that neighborhood now we're starting to butt up against that property,” said Vonck.

Only a one-acre parcel of land that held tracks heading out of the rail yard has been sold, at W. Mason and 15th streets. Since it's no longer owned by the railroad, taxes can be assessed. It now brings in more than $2,200 a year in taxes for the city.

The remaining 30 acres could bring in even more tax dollars, but it's still owned by Canadian National -- and remains tax-exempt -- a common status of railroad-owned property.

FOX 11 Investigates made several attempts to contact Canadian National about the property. In a statement, a spokesman indicated, "It is not for sale." But in informal talks with CN, Vonck says the city was advised to "make an offer."

“We haven't seen it formally 'for sale' yet, but again, in our long-term planning it would be something we're interested in,” said Vonck.

FOX 11 Investigates asked if it possible the city of Green Bay could condemn the property and take it over? Vonck indicated it could be an option, although highly unusual.

“The only frontier we have is that, and the far east side. So it has a higher and better use we just have to find it,” said Zima.

Development with through streets, homes or even athletic fields could also raise property values in and around the raily ard.

Tyler Zaidel lives where 10th Street now dead-ends.

“I wouldn't be totally opposed to it, but it would definitely be different around here," he said. "We don't see a lot of traffic and seeing a lot of traffic would be very different over here.”

“I think acquiring this, moving forward with this, some development, taking Ashland down, a lot of those things really would start to weave back together that neighborhood and make it a lot stronger,” said Vonck.

Those actions would also make the property more economically viable for the city.

What about the possible environmental concerns with the property? Watch FOX11 News at Five and Nine on Wednesday, February 8th to find out more!

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