If Madison is considered the heart of Dane County, then its veins are the network of highways circulating people and goods throughout surrounding communities. Among them are I-94 and Hwy. 12/18, which branch out to another pulsing artery east of I-39/90: the village of Cottage Grove.
Having experienced a 500% growth rate since 1990, the village of Cottage Grove now has a population of nearly 7,000. Surrounded by open rolling prairies and farm fields, there is enough room for continued residential and business growth.
“Dane County is one of the fastest growing in the state,” said village Trustee Melissa Ratcliff, “And our communities all get stronger because of it.” In the five years her family has lived here, Ratcliff said she’s enjoyed “that it’s a smaller community and everything’s pretty close together and has a nice neighborhood feel to it.”
Easy access to various transportation corridors means a 10 minute drive to the Madison airport and a straight route east to Milwaukee in about an hour. Erin Ruth, the village’s Director of Planning and Development, said Cottage Grove is an attractive area for businesses that want to have a footprint in Wisconsin’s two largest cities. “There’s not a lot of places in the Madison area where there is that much vacant land right off a big interchange,” Ruth said.
“Cottage Grove realizes both the benefits of small town Wisconsin, as well as the metropolitan culture and advantages of nearby Madison,” according to the Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce. Paula Severson, the chamber’s Executive Director, said “we’ve tried to be really welcoming as a community to businesses and to be forward thinking about creative uses and potentials.”
Those are some of the reasons Summit Credit Union chose Cottage Grove for its brand new 152,000-square-foot headquarters facility. The six-story Summit building south of I-94 is located in the Commerce Park, which is also home to Midwest STIHL, AtlantisValley Foods, LLC, and Landmark Services Cooperative, Johnson Health Tech, and Oakstone Recreational Facility, which recently broke ground on its bar, restaurant, and indoor and outdoor volleyball courts.
Village President John Williams, who has lived here for 17 years, supports the focus these new businesses have on health. For example, Princeton Club’s athletic gym, Oakstone’s volleyball facilities, and Summit’s indoor fitness area and walking trails “bode well for the community and meshes with residents who already enjoy being outside, active, and interacting with neighbors.”
The Hwy. N exit is a blend of new and old, featuring several fast food restaurants (such as Culver’s and Jimmy Johns) and businesses across the street from SchoolGrounds Coffee House, a restored 1910 one-room schoolhouse turned cafe and art gallery known for its coffee, bakery, fish boils, and live music.
Further south on Main Street you’ll cross train tracks and arrive at the Olde Town Center, a mixed-use brick building featuring apartments and restaurants across from several historic storefronts from the late 19th century. Names of restaurants at this corner evoke the past, including Outpost Bar and Grill, 1855 Saloon and Grill, and Olde Town Coffee House.
According to the Cottage Grove Area Historical Society, the village got its start when the railroad passed through it in 1881, but one of its business districts was no longer needed after trucks took over shipping goods.
Since the 1980s, part of the railroad has been replaced by the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, a crushed gravel rail-trail spanning 52 miles from the Cottage Grove trailhead to the Fox River Sanctuary in Waukesha. The goal is to eventually link the popular Glacial Drumlin Trail with the Capital City State Trail in Madison, which would help make bike commuting easier and safer as well as boost tourism opportunities.
Williams said there are other smaller walking and bike path projects in the works along Main Street, including a connection to the 180-acre McCarthy Youth and Conservation County Park north of the freeway (known for its hiking trails and sledding hills). “It’s a really exciting time for Cottage Grove,” he said. “We’re doing our part to make it easier for people to get around.”
Newly elected Trustee Heidi Murphy and her husband relocated here from the Madison area nearly three years ago. One of the things that drew the couple to Cottage Grove was its emphasis on the outdoors, including several parks, the bike trail, and three golf courses: The Oaks, Door Creek, and The Farm.
For over 10 years, Cottage Grove has also been home to the Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex, which generates more than $2 million in economic benefits to the village and county and will be building a clubhouse in the next few years. In addition to athletic fields, Bakken Park is expected to have a splash pad and shelter built and open by summer 2021.
“Cottage Grove is a great community with wonderful events, an excellent location, and a connection with nature that promotes active living,” Murphy said. “I think its future is exciting as we build vibrant neighborhoods people can call home, maintain excellent schools, and provide more opportunities for businesses and residents to thrive.”
Some of the village’s main events include the Music in the Grove summer concert series at various parks, a golf outing to raise money for high school seniors, Fireman’s Festival featuring a parade and Hot2Trot running events which support the local volunteer fire department, Chamber Marketplace Dayz in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot, and Christmas in the Grove featuring breakfast with Santa, a parade of lights, and craft show.
Trustee Sarah Valencia said she chose Cottage Grove because she wanted to live in a “small neighborhood with a nice house and big yard,” and her daughter wanted to be in the Monona Grove School District.
A $57.9 million referendum recently passed for a new elementary school in Cottage Grove and districtwide improvements in 2020. While each community has their own elementary schools, the middle school is located in Cottage Grove while the high school and charter school are in Monona. Severson said the partnership between Cottage Grove and Monona “has an interesting dynamic,” because when the school district was formed Monona had a higher population of kids and make up a greater percentage of the tax base, whereas now two-thirds of students live in Cottage Grove.
Valencia is aware that most people work outside of the village, and she’s hopeful that the community can bring in more activities for residents to stay and have fun. Ratcliff and Murphy agreed, adding that even though the village seems to have more younger families in it now, over the years that demographic will change. In order for the village to build a community where people are invested in spending time there, it will need to provide opportunities for people of all ages.
“It’s a great place to live, work, and play,” Village Administrator Matt Giese said. “And as we grow in population we’ll continue to get more of the amenities people want in terms of retail and restaurants.” That includes new restaurants in the Commerce Park, the aforementioned Oakstone and bb Jacks, which will also feature a game room.
Demand exceeds supply across many services, so the village is at a point where a hotel and other amenities, such as mini golfing and a doggy daycare, could serve the community, Severson said.
And while Cottage Grove does not have its own library, there is land set aside for it if a referendum is approved in the future. For now, residents can visit the Dane County Library Service Bookmobile that stops Wednesdays at Dublin Park and the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Madison’s Pinney Library on Cottage Grove Road is also a short drive away and will open its new location in 2020.
Future development is anticipated on nearly 300 acres on the north side of I-94 for commercial, office, or light industrial space. Because of Cottage Grove’s proximity to Madison’s east side shopping, Ruth said the village’s “niche is more for an employment base rather than retail” and that “residential growth and more employees will help fill in and feed smaller businesses.” Giese said the area north of I-94 is one of the new Tax Incremental Districts focused on commercial development, along with the space south of Village Hall and west on Cottage Grove Road.
From the housing side, Giese said Quarry Ridge on the east side and Shady Grove on the west side each have about 60 more lots for single-family homes, a developer is actively looking at 100 acres for single- and multi-family homes near The Farm Golf Course, and there’s potential for more than 500 housing units on the northwest edge of the village over the next 20 years. Williams said he hopes the residential growth gives “current residents other housing options” as well as welcomes “new folks to our village.”
Since 2005, Jeff Lennberg and his family have lived in Cottage Grove, which the village trustee described as a “small bedroom community so close to Madison that it’s bound and determined to grow.” There has been an influx of higher-end homes in some of the new neighborhoods, but he also sees a need for more workforce and multi-family housing options. Village and chamber staff seem to agree.
“We’d like to see more diversity in the housing stock and make sure we can accommodate seniors and young adults who don’t have families yet,” Ruth said. “Workforce development is a nationwide issue, and the chamber is interested in helping put things in place that will help our businesses and employers find the staff they need,” Severson added.
Cottage Grove is in the early discussions of a boundary agreement with Madison, Ruth said. Murphy said she hopes the village “makes smart decisions for sensible growth to maintain the quality of life and character of the community.”
In response to the 96% of residents who work outside of the village and often leave their consumer dollars elsewhere, the chamber introduced the Cottage Grove First! campaign. Severson said the chamber is encouraging restaurants and other stores to modify their business practices, including extending their hours to evenings and weekends to accommodate commuters. She and others are hopeful that Summit’s arrival will help drive some of that local business.
“I think the most difficult thing for businesses is trying to get people to stay here to shop,” said Jeanne Schommer, who is celebrating the 20th anniversary of opening Piggly Wiggly in Cottage Grove in 2019. “Summit is a monumental business to have here, and we’re just thrilled to have them invest in Cottage Grove and the future.”
“We have a welcoming and open type of community, and as we grow I hope we never lose sight of that fact,” Schommer added. “We have great potential ahead.”