Monona is conveniently located just 15 minutes from downtown Madison with beautiful sunset views of the Capitol over the lake and close proximity to the Beltline and Hwy. 51. Even though its roughly 3 square miles are completely surrounded by water or land owned by other municipalities, Monona is carving out its niche as a small waterfront community with easy access to amenities.
“It’s the best kept secret in Dane County,” said Kathy Thomas, who has served on Monona City Council for about 35 years.
Thomas moved to Monona in 1969, the same year it became a city. Monona was incorporated as a village in 1938 when more housing and businesses started taking over the farmland that was previously part of the town of Blooming Grove. Her husband grew up in Monona, and they built a house across the street from the home his parents had commissioned in 1931. Then when her mother-in-law passed away, Thomas moved back across the street to the family home along Winnequah Road, which also happens to be the first international style house in Monona.
“From a footprint standpoint it has not expanded out, but what we’ve done has been infill and redevelopment,” Thomas said, particularly in the Monona Drive and Broadway corridors.
When Schilling helped rebrand Monona’s chamber of commerce as MESBA and included businesses on Madison’s east side in 2015, membership doubled within the first 18 months. She said some of its objectives include supporting the business community, making sure Monona is economically healthy and thriving, and tapping into opportunities when they arrive. “We also serve as the visitor center of Monona, and we believe that it’s important to have good economic opportunities here,” she said.
Schilling tells visitors the key to differentiating the two cities is looking at the color of the street signs: blue is Monona and green is Madison. It’s particularly confusing for people that the Monona Golf Course is actually Madison while the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, just a mile south, is in Monona. Her vision for Monona’s future is for people to quickly recognize they are no longer in Madison by updating buildings with a bright color palette, similar to what is used in other waterfront communities like Egg Harbor in Door County.
City administrator Bryan Gadow has only worked for the city of Monona for a few months but has already observed that one of the biggest questions facing residents is, “How much do we embrace Madison versus maintain our separate identity?” Opinions differ, but he said he appreciates that the council shows commitment, its citizens are passionate, and that “Monona is focused on the big picture and is innovative.”
One of Monona’s most notable achievements is being a state and regional leader in sustainability. Its Sustainability Plan looks at responsible and innovative land use, water, energy, transportation, and solid waste.
“Monona has certainly gotten more progressive, and like many communities we have evolved,” Thomas said. She remembers how the city used to allow leaf burning, and now the city is much more environmentally conscious.
As part of this sustainability effort and encouraging residents to stay in Monona throughout their lifetimes, the city is bringing back its Renew Monona Loan Program. The city received funding through the closing of a new TIF district, and it is reinvesting $1.2 million through this program to help revitalize the housing stock and make the city more affordable and attractive through low-interest loans. Possible uses for the program are to assist first-time homebuyers with their downpayment; renovate the old housing stock; reinvest in solar and renewable energy initiatives; or make substantial improvements to homes to enhance its efficiency (like HVAC and insulation) and bring it to modern standards.
Mary O’Connor, who has lived in Monona since 1980 and is serving her second term as mayor, said many of the homes in the city are smaller ranch and cape cod style with one-car garages. “People are buying homes and tearing them down or remodeling because they are on deep lots,” O’Connor said.
Thomas said she prefers when people choose to renovate their homes instead of tear them down because it’s a better use of resources. “We’re trying to maintain the quality of life here but doing it in a more sustainable way,” Thomas said.
“Most homes weren’t built until the 1950s-60s, so many of those original homeowners are moving on to senior housing. The demographic is changing,” O’Connor said. She said that many people grew up here and have moved back, but they have different priorities now and have a more active lifestyle.
The population has also changed over the last 50 years, noted Thomas. “It used to be up around 10,000, but now it’s closer to 8,000 (as it was in the 1950s), because families are smaller and more single people are buying homes in general,” Thomas said. “But I think the city will continue to be a great place to live, raise a family, and grow old.”
As a landlocked city hugging Lake Monona west of Stoughton Road, Monona is tight on space for new housing and buildings but poised for smart and sustainable redevelopment.
O’Connor said some of the businesses along Broadway that were built in the 1950s and 60s needed to be upgraded or replaced, and the city’s biggest development in 20 years is well underway in that area: Monona’s Riverfront Redevelopment. Yahara Commons, located near West Broadway, Bridge Road, and the Yahara River, includes a small city park featuring a seasonal ice skating rink (the only other one in the city is on the lagoon), restaurants (including Forage Kitchen and Buck & Honeys and The Tasting Room wine bar/cigar lounge), an Avid Hotel, and two apartment buildings (96 units are already constructed and 144 more are planned).
The South Towne Mall area, which includes Walmart and Kohls, just saw the closure of Shopko. Gadow said the city “wants to be involved” and intends to pitch ideas regarding the future of the vacant building. With online shopping putting some chain stores out of business, Thomas suspects there will be more service businesses than retail coming in.
New city planner and assistant community development director, Douglas Plowman, said some of the trends he is seeing is repurposing parking lots and out parcels for more commercial and mixed-use properties. That area is actually a historical site as Dane County’s first airport, and Schilling said with many big box stores transitioning into smaller shops to serve communities it’s “an incredible development opportunity in the future.”
“The key going forward is finding developers who live in our area and care about our community, like the Riverfront owner who lives in Monona,” Schilling said. “That will help us develop the infill areas on Monona Drive.”
Monona Drive includes longtime businesses such as Angelo’s, Ken’s Meat and Deli, Silver Eagle, and Fraboni’s.
Of the 30 eateries here, all are locally-owned except five, most of which are near the intersection of Monona Drive and Broadway, such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Red Robin.
Popular locally-owned restaurants include Swad, Waypoint, and Breakwater.
Some popular retail stores on Monona Drive include the Cozy Home consignment store and Booth 121 across on the south end, as well as the Habitat for Humanity ReStore on the north end. Gadow said he sees additional retail and mixed-use on Monona Drive, and the right type of redevelopment of smaller and medium-sized properties which will help the city’s tax base.
The city is also home to several well-known companies, including Monona Bank, WPS, Gunderson Funeral Home, UW Health and UnityPoint Health-Meriter clinics. And with convenient water access along Broadway, Rutabaga Paddlesports is one of the top locally-owned outdoor retail stores in the country and organizes the world’s largest paddling expo, Canoecopia, each year at the Alliant Energy Center.
Andrew Kitslaar, who has served as a city alder for three years, grew up in Monona, participating in parks and recreation programs as well as working as a lifeguard and swim instructor through the city in his teens and early 20s. Even when he left the state to pursue a master’s degree and met his wife from Pennsylvania, the couple “always loved when we came back to the Madison area” for vacations and family events.
The Kitslaars decided to move back to Wisconsin in 2014 and researched various communities in Dane County to purchase a home, but Monona topped the list because of its parks, events, sustainability priorities, proximity to downtown Madison and area amenities, and the neighborhood and community feel. “We were specifically looking for a place we could see ourselves hosting a block party for neighbors, and we liked the locality of Monona and the resources it has,” he said.
Kitslaar encourages residents to get involved in the wide gamut of services the city offers, including senior center and park and recreation programs, pool, library, beautiful parks, and access to the river and lake.
There are also several community events in Monona, including the farmers market on Broadway, the Easter egg hunt, Memorial Day parade, Fourth of July festivities, a ”pop-up” Schluter Park Beirgarten throughout the summer, and breakfast with Santa and tree lighting. The city and other organizations are continually dreaming up and trying out bigger events that will be a regional draw.
“It’s a place where you feel deeply connected to and part of the community, and we’re welcoming and open to everyone,” Kitslaar said.
Many residents and visitors use the Lake Loop bike route that connects to the Capital City State Trail around Lake Monona. This route follows much of Winnequah Road and Tonyawatha Trail, providing access to several lakefront parks and a popular sweet treat stop at Monona Bait and Ice Cream Shop next to the ivy-covered Monona Motors building.
The route also gives a glimpse of the unique neighborhoods west of Monona Drive, such as Frost Woods, which features several international style homes designed with their signature flat roofs by Hamilton Beatty and Alan Strang in the 1930s, including one where Thomas now lives.
However, one part of the Lake Loop is particularly dangerous near Winnequah and Bridge Roads. That intersection, which is highly traversed by cars, bikes, and people who often walk their dogs, will benefit from sidewalks, wider bike paths, and a four-way stop -- all of which the city currently has in the planning stages. Monona was the first city to partner with UW-Madison’s UniverCity Alliance to research projects, problems, challenges, and initiatives the city would like to address, and Kitslaar said the biggest focus is on making safer bike and pedestrian avenues throughout Monona, particularly by adding sidewalks in designated areas to create safer routes for children to walk to and from school.
Monona is envisioning the future of Winnequah Park, the city’s largest community park which also draws thousands for the Monona 20K/5K.
Since the senior center is closeby, some residents would like to see walkable paths for exercising, as well as new playing fields and playground equipment. The summer concert series is currently held at the Dream Park Shelter, but the city is also considering adding an amphitheatre.
The city has invested a lot in upgrading many of its park in recent years. Thomas said the parks and recreation department comes up with “clever ideas and have done incredible things with our parks,” including adding a ping pong table to Bridge Road Park.
Many of the parks also have spectacular lake views.
Schilling said some of her first impressions of the city were of people walking with their kayaks down to the lake, playing kickball in the street, and having strangers help her load up a large find at a neighborhood garage sale. “It reminds me of my childhood from 40 years ago; it’s a really quaint, laid back, relaxed community,” she said.
Thomas agreed, noting that it’s the kind of place where you can easily “pick up the phone and call an alder or school member.”
Monona has a very involved volunteer network and Monona Grove School District community, O’Connor said. 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.
“The school district drives the population growth almost entirely,” Schilling said. “People like having it as an option on the east side, and it has a huge commitment to the arts.”
A few years ago, Monona had the highest average age per capita among cities in Dane County (25.7% of the city’s residents were over the age of 60 based on 2013-2017 statistics). “Monona has done a good job of transitioning residents from homes to other places in Monona so they can still live here,” Kitslaar said, including apartments, condominiums, senior housing, and continuing care facilities. However, there is still a push to diversify the housing stock with an “upswing of younger, more active families.”
Kitslaar said to accommodate a wide demographic, the city will need to invest more in its facilities and programs. “I see the city becoming more progressive in that council is willing to lead and try new things and its very responsive to our residents. There are exciting opportunities for the city that we didn’t have in the past,” Kitslaar said.
Aside from the library that was renovated and had an addition in 2000, several of the city’s other facilities, including the public safety building, pool, and community center, are either old and outdated or residents’ needs have outgrown the space.
In the next decade or so, some of these buildings may be remodeled, expanded, or rebuilt in another location. Gadow said Monona will also be updating park amenities and underground infrastructure such as pipes.
“In some ways we’re landlocked, but on the other hand it makes us do better with what we have,” Thomas said, including targeting redevelopment areas to revitalize the city.
Kitslaar said he prefers the term “inburb” to describe Monona, a wordplay on “suburb” he said he first heard from alder Doug Wood. “We are surrounded by Madison and have the amenities of a bigger city with a small community feel,” Kitslaar said.
Gadow said the focus is on redeveloping underutilized properties, which will increase in value in the next 5-10 years. “The city and contractors are coming in to propose new ideas. It’s a long process but also exciting,” Kitslaar added.
“I think people will become more sustainable and there will be more efforts for conserving energy in the city,” said Thomas. Kitslaar agreed, saying he sees the city “continuing to push boundaries in policies and actions,” for example with the city’s sustainability efforts and family leave policy for city employees. “We’re looking at what we can do to not only better our society, but also think outside the box and help residents.”
“Monona is an amazing little community,” Schilling said. “Everything you need is here, and life is really simple here if you want it to be.”