The Village of Oregon is over 175 years old, but the last few years have been particularly noteworthy for the nearly 10,000 residents in this community just 10 miles south of Madison.
New building projects have been popping up all over -- from single-family homes on the south and west sides to the village’s first hotel in recent history on the east side. And downtown, several Main Street buildings have been refurbished while others have been cleared to make room for a high-demand apartment complex.
But perhaps the most memorable project has been the village’s new welcome center, located in the restored 1899 pump house beneath the “Tin Man” water tower on Janesville Street. Shortly after moving here around 2013 for the “small-town and historic feel,” Randy Glysch launched a fundraising campaign that was supported by nearly 200 businesses, organizations, and individuals.
Once the welcome center opened in 2015, he set his sights 100 feet higher in an effort to repaint and light the iconic water tower, listed on the National Historic Register, in 2017. The way the community came together for that project has become a beacon for several other efforts through the Oregon Community Resource Network (including a new food pantry and youth center) and as far away as Nebraska, where an even smaller town used a similar grassroots effort to save their water tower. “It’s an example of the impact a small village can have on other communities in the country,” Glysch said.
There’s even more on the horizon for Oregon, especially since most of the village’s buildings are at capacity or in need of repair. Plans are coming together for a new downtown library and civic campus, a splash pad next to the indoor pool, an outdoor sports park near the ice arena, and a business park and workforce housing on the east side near Hwy. 14/138. Other projects include improving some downtown streets and parking lots and repairing the popular Rotary Bike Trail that was damaged by flooding.
With the understanding that the Oregon School District is expected to increase its enrollment by 50% within the next decade, the village has passed several referendums to accommodate that demand. This included $55 million for a high school addition and other school renovations, a recurring $1 million per year referendum for teacher compensation to attract and keep teachers, and a $45 million referendum for a new elementary school in Fitchburg that will likely open for the 2020-21 school year. Down the line there are also plans for a new middle school on the north side.
The village of Oregon has gone through growth spurts before, but what’s happening now has prompted the village to start the search for a full-time planner, said village administrator Mike Gracz. He said the current planner assured him that Oregon is still “one of the most stable growing communities” with about 3,000 people added in the last 10 years and averaging about 40 single-family housing permits per year since 2016. That also includes more homes near The Legend at Bergamont Golf Course, which has a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape. The village also has a second golf course, Foxboro Golf Club, on the southeast side.
“I came here in 1999 and we were busy, but I’d say this is the busiest I’ve ever seen the village since I’ve been here,” Gracz said. “Back then there was just private development, and now we have all of these exciting things going on, like the civic campus plan and Jaycee Park West and buildings for future expansion. We’re positioning the village to grow to 12,000-15,000 people in the future.”
“I think we’ll have continued, steady growth, with more opportunities for single-family and multi-family homes,” said Steve Staton, who has lived in the village for 42 years and has served the community as a school administrator, village board trustee, and 12 years as village president before retiring in 2019.
This growth has also translated to the business sector. For example, Thysse brand design and printing company is in the third phase of its building expansion (about 86,000-square-feet) on West Netherwood Street and has grown from 18 to nearly 100 employees.
“Oregon is the place to be,” Staton said. “It has a small but vital downtown and most of the storefronts are full.”
On Main Street, Soleil Wellness & Day Spa underwent a building remodel during its 10th anniversary in 2017 and has since seen “tremendous growth” in its services and staffing “as people are embracing a more holistic approach” to healing, said owner Linda Pollock. “Back when I was the chamber director, it was a struggle with the population, because Oregon used to be a bedroom community and people would shop in Madison. Now, people seem to support local.”
This section of Main Street is referred to as “Wellness Way,” because in addition to the spa there is also a chiropractic office, yoga studio, and acupuncture clinic just a few doors down. “There is competition, but a love for each other -- a sense of community,” Pollock said. “Businesses like to help each other and refer clients or products back and forth as needed.”
Franciska Anderson, who founded Pivotal Point Acupuncture a decade ago, said she’s glad she “started here and stayed here” because of all the support she’s received from the business community. “When I first opened I was seen as the mysterious, magical voodoo practitioner and there was a stigma about needles, but not it’s more accepted and I’m even getting referrals from western medicine doctors,” she said.
Anderson calls the relationship between downtown businesses “synergistic” and “friendly,” because people get to know each other on a first name basis. It also helps that the historic downtown is so centralized, so rather than sending an email or even making a phone call, it’s easy to just drop by.
The Firefly is the hub of the village, where you’ll find local artwork hanging on the walls, friends chatting over coffee or a meal, area groups meeting, kids playing, professionals working on their laptops, or people reading by the fireplace.
During spring break, Brandon Thompson and his family were playing a game that he created on one of the Firefly’s long tables. They often come here from neighboring Stoughton for the “at-home environment (where) they definitely make you feel welcome,” he said. On the other side of the fireplace relaxing in a living room chair was Meg Wise, who said she’s lived in Oregon for over 10 years and enjoys “living in a smaller community because you get to know everybody and everybody gets to know you.”
Around the corner near the children’s play area was Melanie Woodworth, Oregon Area Historical Society museum coordinator, and her daughter and grandkids who were visiting from out of state. “They like to go to the village museum, Firefly, and the chocolate shop. They have those stops picked out,” Woodworth said. Her grandkids also enjoy watching the water tower lights go on at dusk, which they refer to as Oregon’s “night light.”
Firefly owner Jeanne Carpenter, who has also served on the village board, was just elected as Oregon’s first female village president. Hear more about what Firefly patrons had to say about Oregon in this video.
“Oregon’s downtown area is truly the heart of the community,” said Doris Deits, who just celebrated the 15th anniversary of Peaceful Heart Gifts and Books. “Opening the store gave me the opportunity to be connected to the community in a way that I could not have experienced without a store.”
Deits and her husband are excited for their grand reopening this fall after extensive interior and exterior renovation work, which was made possible in part by the village’s facade-improvement grant program. “I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the local building owners and businesses who have put in the work and resources to upgrade and improve the physical buildings, and those who provide the community with food, goods, and services that are necessary to have a vibrant downtown and attract people to want to live here,” she said.
That includes Dan Donoghue, who left his software job at Epic to take over The Chocolate Caper in 2014 with his wife, who has a background in bakery. He enjoys seeing people walking around downtown more now that there’s a mix of businesses. “Oregon is evolving and transitioning into a place that people like to stay and play,” he said. “We get the benefits of Madison without the congestion. There are so many resources for such a small village -- it’s remarkable.”
“It’s big enough to have things going on but small enough to get where you need to go,” said Oregon Area Senior Center director Rachel Brickner. She said the senior center has a very busy social calendar for recreational and educational activities, as it’s one of three senior centers in the county that is state licensed for adult day programs. Oregon, which is also considered a dementia-friendly community, “is a great place to be for seniors -- it’s close to the pool, post office, library, senior housing, village hall -- and there’s transportation available to take them to the store or doctor’s appointments."
“It’s an active community -- there’s always something going on,” said Teri Zieglemeier, owner of Ziggy’s BBQ Smoke House and Ice Cream Parlor, which gives back to the community through its senior dining program and holiday meals for those in need.
Library director Jennifer Endres Way said she’s looking forward to the library’s new location and offerings. “It’s nice to work in a community where you live and to be able to do your shopping locally,” she said, like at Bill’s Food Center, which just turned 40. “People care about each other and everybody knows your name.”
Oregon has an “amazing park system,” Donoghue said, which includes Waterman-Triangle Park across the street where you can listen to outdoor concerts in the summer.
And around the corner is Kiser Fireman’s Park, where the village’s annual Summer Fest celebration is held in collaboration with the Oregon Area Chamber of Commerce in June, featuring a carnival, live entertainment, athletic tournaments, car show, parade, and fireworks.
There’s also Keller Alpine Meadows Park and Lerner Conservation Park on the village’s west side, which includes a network of trails and ponds that attract waterfowl.
On the east side close to Jaycee Park is Jon Blanchard Dog Park, and Anderson Farm County Park on the south side features woodland hiking trails and plans to add a dog exercise area and agriculture programming.
“People are so nice here,” Donoghue said, which he attributes to more than just the chocolate-induced euphoria. “It’s a pleasure to work where people are happy. There’s a camaraderie among downtown businesses; everyone reaches out to each other.”
Donoghue said he has experienced that sense of community not only as a business owner, but also as a resident. For example, he said it was easy to approach the village government about the need for a crosswalk in his neighborhood, and he has also seen firsthand how responsive and friendly the police and fire departments have been.
Glysch and Staton said the way people support each other, work together, and step up is also common on the village board, where members are trying to bring in facts and do what’s best for Oregon.
“It’s a progressive board and community,” Staton said. “There’s thorough discussions of things and lots of ideas, but the values are community-based and there’s been a strong feeling that we should maintain our small-town atmosphere.” Glysch added that while he doesn’t think there is opposition to growth, “it has to be done the right way -- we don’t want to lose this feel that we have here.”