Verona: Growing city has ‘hometown’ feeling at its core
by Samantha Haas
on Thursday, February 28th, 2019 at 1:59pm.
Halfway between Madison and Mount Horeb along Hwy. 18/151 is Verona, one of the fastest growing cities in Wisconsin. Verona’s population has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, hovering around 13,000 people and prompting the school, residential, and business districts in “Hometown USA” to expand.
Jason Stampfli, a 1996 Verona Area High School graduate, recalls shooting hoops in the driveway as a kid and being able to run after the basketball if it bounced into Main Street. With the increased amount of traffic that now comes through the downtown corridor, that’s no longer recommended. However, it was the familiar hometown charm and accessible location that prompted him to return two years ago to open Stampfli Mortgage, LLC on that same street. “Growing up here had a big influence on where I wanted my business to be,” he said. “We like the community and what goes on here with different events.”
Also clustered in that area are several restaurants and businesses, including the mainstay grocery store Miller and Sons Supermarket, which has hosted thousands of fundraisers over the years to help local groups and causes. Stampfli used to stop there on his walk to school to get chocolate peanut butter donuts, which he said still taste amazing as ever. “When you have a good thing going, don’t change it,” he said. “Miller’s has been here forever; the community supports them and they support the community.”
Across the street in one of the few remaining original houses downtown is the Midwest’s first combined yarn store and coffee shop, The Sow’s Ear. Owner Deb Errington, who has lived in Verona for over 30 years, said she’s noticed a “huge shift” between the number of Verona natives and newcomers, many of which work at Epic and are drawn to the school system. “There’s a lot of young people (as well as up and coming knitters) who bring a fun energy and sense of community here,” she said.
Locals also frequent the other downtown coffee shop, Tuvalu Coffeehouse and Gallery, whether they’re stopping by to read a book, work on their laptops, meet with friends or coworkers, listen to live music, or browse the selection of local artisan and fair trade gifts. “All it takes is to stop one time and you’ll want to come back. It’s got a comfortable, homey feeling, and you can be in your own space or talk to someone you’ve never met,” said Patty Gempeler, who has been the store manager alongside owner Shelly Kubly for the last four years.
Verona Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Le Jordan said her family fell in love with the area, and her kids enjoy playing sports, ice skating, and getting out on the trails. “People are really active here,” she said.
Pedestrian, bike, and traffic improvements were recently made along South Main Street, prompting the city to receive an active community designation from Wisconsin Active Together program this year. And in 2017, the city and town of Verona became the state’s seventh Ice Age Trail Community, further embracing its natural features.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail links two Dane County prairies and dog parks on the east side of Verona, but there are dozens of smaller parks and playgrounds throughout the city. Prairie Moraine County Park and Badger Prairie County Park were even named the top two dog parks by Madison Magazine’s Best of Madison awards.
The other main trail that runs right through downtown by Hometown Junction Park is the Military Ridge State Trail, spanning 40 miles between Madison and Dodgeville.
Verona businesses have also won several Best of Madison awards, including The Purple Goose women’s clothing store and toot + kate’s winebar, which are located on Main Street near the intersection of Verona Avenue, which spans west and east through the city. Several restaurants and businesses, such as Culver’s, Farm and Fleet, and an eventual second grocery store, Festival Foods, are located on the east side of Verona Avenue with quick access to Hwy. 18/151.
On the city’s northwest side is the Epic Systems campus and the new high schools site, and along County Highway M on the southeast side is the expanding business and technology park, which includes a Hyatt Place hotel, Wisconsin Brewing Company, Sugar River Pizza Company, The Verona Woods, and Fisher King Winery.
As the city grows, there’s still an effort for the city of Verona to be separated from Madison. Farm fields and prairies in the town of Verona have acted as a buffer, explained longtime resident Bernice Hamilton, who moved into the second house built on Gilman Street near downtown over 60 years ago. Since then she’s seen many changes in the city, including the relocation of the library from one end of the neighborhood to the other and the development of Kay Park across the street from a place her kids played in the dirt to an actual playground.
“It’s a great place to be,” said Adam Sayre, the city’s director of planning and development. “You’re close to a lot of amenities, downtown Madison, and the countryside just west of here. Plus we have a lot of existing establishments to eat and shop at where you can take your family.” City officials are paying attention to the infrastructure, traffic, utility, and open space needs, noting that the city is growing at a reasonable pace, with just over 30 multifamily/duplex permits and approximately 50 single-family home permits in 2018.
The next big mixed-use commercial and residential development is expected to be on the city’s north side with the County Highway M and County Highway PD traffic improvements.
In 2018, the city hired its first economic development manager, Dayna Sarver, who had once lived in rural Iowa. “We wanted to find a place to raise our family and have a strong community. I was looking at similar areas, and Verona felt most like home. When I was in graduate school at UW-Madison I thought, ‘Ahh, I can breathe,’ driving through the country and enjoying the lull of the rolling hills,” she said.
Sarver is one of many “transplants” who now consider Verona home and feels like “she can age in place.” She said after you’ve been the “new person” for a little while you can point other newbies toward the city’s best spots and resources, which has been a fun experience. Want to give back to the community? Donate to the food pantry at Badger Prairie Needs Network. Need to cool off in the summer? Stop by the beach at Fireman’s Park (which is getting upgraded facilities and a splash pad expected to be completed by June 2019). Looking for a great sledding hill? Try the one behind Badger Ridge Middle School along Cross Country Road. Interested in watching a play? Verona Area Community Theatre offers 10 full-length productions (seven of which feature children) each year in its new building next to the fire station on Lincoln Street.
With the new high school relocation on the horizon (expected to open fall 2020), several other schools, such as New Century Charter School and Sugar Creek Elementary School, will be shifting in the Verona Area School District, which also includes some residents from Madison and Fitchburg. At over 589,000 square feet, the new high school “is the largest single school construction project to date in the state of Wisconsin and will be a school we can all be proud of,” VASD superintendent Dean Gorrell wrote in the Verona Progress publication.
“The new high school will transform the west side of the city. Epic is there now, but it will really activate that space out there,” Sayre said. “It will provide a lot of great opportunities from an athletic and visitor standpoint.”
Verona is already becoming a hub for athletics and activities: tournaments at Reddan Soccer Park, the bike course through downtown for IRONMAN Wisconsin, National Short Track Speed Skating Championship at the Verona Ice Arena, the American Family Insurance PGA Championship at University Ridge Golf Course, the Tri 4 Schools Family Mud Run at Hometown USA Festival Park, and several other running events. The city’s Recreation Department also offers dozens of youth and adult classes and programs, featuring lacrosse, volleyball, basketball, football, softball, ultimate frisbee, dance, and music.
Some of the chamber events include the annual Hometown Days celebration in June, which includes family entertainment, live music, food, and a parade, and the Hometown Holidays winter event in coordination with the city’s light display. Jordan said the chamber plans to hold at least one event for each season, add more free activities, and continue incorporating a blow-up movie screen for outdoor movies.
Fall Fest was successfully introduced two years ago, and last year’s new spring event has been expanded and renamed to Spring Egg-Stravaganza for this April. To further boost engagement with the community during the Main Street construction, the chamber promoted the trick or treat and Music on Main events at downtown businesses, which are now annual events. Several breweries and coffee shops also host live musicians, and Harriet Park is the place to be for outdoor summer concerts.
Jordan said that Verona is a welcoming community where it’s easy to strike up conversation and realize you have similar interests with people. When envisioning the city’s future, she thinks Verona will have a lot more activities and a diversity of businesses because the city is easy to work with and there is space to grow. She said there’s “a willingness to cooperate and work together” between the chamber, senior center, city, and schools. “They want to help and have the same values, and we make sure we’re not duplicating services, which I think stands out from other communities,” Jordan said.
Sarver added that even the business community is “open to providing positive feedback,” which is a different kind of tone than she’s experienced in other places. A decade or so from now she thinks the city will have a “clearly defined Verona identity.”
“(Verona) is so close to Madison, but you have all you need here,” Gempeler said. “And it still has its warm, small-town feeling where people still know your name.”