by Samantha Haas
on Thursday, January 17th, 2019 at 9:48am.
As "the only Waunakee in the world," this growing village north of Madison is known for its close-knit community, abundance of parks, and convenient location.
Take it from Ellen Schaaf, who has lived in Waunakee for 18 years and has been the executive director of the Waunakee Area Chamber of Commerce for the last 13. She grew up in Madison and started the house search after she got married and had her first child. "What was important to us was a forward-thinking, smaller community close to things, and Waunakee met that bill for us," she said. Schaaf is passionate where she lives, citing the village's small-town feel that's close to the big city.
This special "essence" of Waunakee is what called Brent Bickel to move here to start a new church. In addition to his role as pastor, Bickel also serves as the president-elect of the chamber and the high school soccer coach. Even though he said the access to amenities on each side of Madison is incredible, there is a "discernible geographic difference" with Waunakee, but not in the sense that it's closed off or stuffy. Instead, it's "just the right balance;" a true community surrounded by opportunity where you get to know people by name and face, whether at a sporting event or the grocery store.
Bickel has seen firsthand, from his three children attending 4K through elementary school, how the teachers, staff, and principals "work with students on a personal level with genuine compassion."
"The district has done a wonderful job anticipating student population changes and providing the right facilities," said Todd Schmidt, village administrator and economic development director.
Waunakee is also preparing to open its new 40,000-square-foot library in summer of 2019 on North Madison Street, which replaces a former defunct industrial building in the middle of the village. Schaaf said that this new facility "will take us well into the future."
Another positive of the community is its beautiful parks.
"Anywhere in Waunakee, within 5 minutes of walking you're going to find a very nice park," Bickel said, including Centennial Park and Ripp Park which are close to his home.
The oldest and most iconic park is Village Park, featuring mature trees and bridges over Sixmile Creek, Schaaf said.
Backing up to the park is the beautiful Village Center, built in 2006, which holds the senior center, children's programming, recreation amenities, and meeting space.
There is also easy access to other recreational amenities, Schmidt said, including kayaking, golfing, cross country skiing, hiking at nearby Governor Nelson State Park, and exploring the area's agricultural roots at Schumacher Farm County Park.
Bickel has experienced the "cooperation and team mentality" of the community. Compared with other places he's lived, he said Waunakee has "by far the best mix of both artistic and economic creativity combined with a drive to add value to the community and people around them."
Waunakee is very community oriented, and one of the chamber's objectives is to forge partnerships between the village, town of Westport, school district, civic and professional organizations. One of the ways it does that is by holding events that showcase the improved aesthetics of Waunakee and inspire community pride.
Some of the main events include WaunaBoom, which now has fireworks on the Fourth of July at Ripp Park. Later in July is the four-day WaunaFest at Centennial Park with music, food, games, and a parade. Then in the fall, Wauktoberfest is held at Endres Manufacturing grounds, known for its German heritage and goats.
Recent additions include Light the Night winter holiday events throughout December, featuring a horse and carriage ride with Santa on Main Street and Rotary Lights in Village Park, which Schaaf said offer "low or no cost options for families to take in the sights and scenes of Waunakee."
Depot Days in spring and a Christmas Shop Hop in winter bring people together downtown and into storefronts, including the renovated historic train depot where the chamber office is located.
There is also a farmers market held weekly during the warm months in the Waun-A-Bowl parking lot. Other events include car shows, athletic tournaments, fun runs, and concerts in the park with food carts.
In order to continue to enhance the quality of life for the people of Waunakee, Schaaf said it's important for the community to offer unique activities and bring in good businesses that can provide jobs and keep people engaged locally.
The recession was a "very sad and uncertain time" for the community when several downtown businesses closed, Schaaf said. The Koltes Lumber Co. building sat empty for several years before Hovde Properties came in to turn this prime site by the railroad tracks into a retail and office complex. The original brick was preserved when the building was redeveloped for the Village Crossing mixed-use project, now featuring Lone Girl Brewing Company with its popular rooftop seating.
Waunakee's Main Street, which doubles as State Highways 19 and 113, was restructured and resurfaced by the DOT in 2014. The village decided to take advantage of that moment and make additional improvements, Schmidt said. The project included new street surface, roundabout, pedestrian crossings, and utility line improvements, as well as decorative street lights, banners, benches, trash receptacles, and planters. "With that project and the return of local economy post-recession we saw sparked interest in redevelopment projects, which were components of Waunakee's economic plan and comprehensive plan," Schmidt said.
"In the last few years we've really started to see a good uptick of revitalization," Schaaf said, including redoing the downtown streetscape, redeveloping older buildings, and adding more retail boutique and niche businesses along Main Street and Century Avenue to some of its mainstays, such as Mill House Quilts, Waunakee Furniture ETC, and the Village Meat Market.
That's made Waunakee even more attractive for people and businesses to relocate here and establish itself as a destination. "A few anchor businesses feed off each other and give people a reason to come and have more than one place to visit," Schaaf said.
Schmidt said he's seeing a microsurge of local tourism economy. Some of the other popular establishments aside from Lone Girl in the area include Octopi Brewing, Parched Eagle Brewpub, and Drumlin Ridge Winery.
And while a second, larger grocery store is on the horizon, the village is committed to its "big box" zoning code ordinance -- especially because Middleton and Sun Prairie's large developments are just a 15 minute drive away.
Schaaf said the business park is booming on the village's east side, featuring Nord Gear Corporation, Scientific Protein Laboratories, Suttle-Straus (printer and marketing services), Uniek (home goods producers), and BrightStar (senior living).
From nearly 9,000 people in 2010, the population of Waunakee has grown to nearly 14,000 in the last decade, adding to the commercial interest. "We're seeing a local economy that can support more businesses," Schmidt said.
"We've seen a lot of growth, with both millennials and on the flip side a lot of older people moving back to be with their kids and grandkids," Schaaf said.
New home permits have been hovering around 100 for the last few years, "which is a decent pace and fits our ability to provide services really well," Schmidt said.
Residents who bought starter homes are now growing their household and either building new homes or moving into another home in Waunakee. "Some of these movements have opened up other homes in the marketplace to first-time home buyers," Schmidt said. And new apartment complexes are being built to accommodate folks who prefer renting over buying.
Historically Waunakee was an agricultural community and it remains surrounded and enriched by farmland, and Schmidt hopes the village "retains a piece of that character" and "rural feel" even though it's connected regionally. He said this growth is thoughtful and comprehensive, takes care of surface water and preserving green space, and adds parks and trail connections. "The new neighborhoods are not sprawling developments, which I think is very respectful to the heritage around us," he said.
Schmidt said the village expects Waunakee to continue to be a popular location for residents to "lay deep roots and settle in" and love it even more as the years go by.