Graham Kilmer

Beloit Company Plans Move to St. Francis

Advanced manufacturer, Lean Design Werks, would clean up polluted property with state and county aid and relocate.

By - Jul 3rd, 2024 04:31 pm

4021 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Photo taken June 28, 2024 by Graham Kilmer.

It’s a series of events common in the history of the Milwaukee area: a manufacturing operation leaves town, or shuts down, and leaves behind a vacant, environmentally contaminated building.

In St. Francis, near the intersection of E. Howard Avenue and S. Kinnickinnic Avenue, at 4021 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., there is one such building. What is less common is what is happening there now.

The owners of Lean Design Werks, an advanced manufacturing firm based in Beloit want to relocate their operation to Milwaukee and to the vacant, derelict facility on Kinnickinnic. They want to fix the building up and remediate the carcinogenic contamination left behind by more than 60 years of industry on the property. They want to employ more than a dozen people there, building advanced robotics and automation systems.

Renata Bunger, president of Lean Design Werks, and her husband, Dale Bunger, vice president, founded the firm in 2015. The business is a Black-owned and woman-owned firm. It offers custom-designed industrial machinery and automation systems. The Bungers live in Milwaukee and would love to relocate their business here. They have plans to grow the business but need more space.

“We spent a couple years looking around,” Renata told Urban Milwaukee.

It’s difficult to find small industrial space (20,000 square feet or less) with the kind of high ceilings and large doors their operation needs, the Bungers said. Eventually, they came upon this site in St. Francis, while looking through a list of contaminated industrial properties maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“It is a cool industrial manufacturing building, it was built in the 40s, it’s got a cool look,” Dale said. “And for our use, it fits very well.”

The catch is that the property is badly environmentally degraded. The DNR has known since the 1990s that there are serious environmental concerns on the site. The building itself is also in ragged condition. The roof is damaged and leaking, the electrical system was stripped of its wiring and has been ruined by the leaking roof, the plumbing is shot and there is old heavy industrial equipment scattered throughout the site.

The firm is working with the state DNR, Milwaukee County, the City of St. Francis and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to conduct an assessment of the environmental damage on site. The county is sponsoring the firm’s application for a Brownfield Site Assessment Grant (SAG), which is a grant program created to help local governments investigate abandoned or underutilized industrial sites for environmental concerns.

The building was constructed in the 1930s and ’40s. It was used for sheet metal fabrication. In the 1960s, William Puchner bought the building for his business Wire & Metal Specialties, according to the SAG grant application. Stanley Fronczak purchased the building in 2007 for his business Badger Metal Finishing, according to county tax records. However, Puchner remained on the hook for environmental remediation at the site and never paid to have anything done. In 2018, Fronczak stopped paying property taxes on the building and has since retired and moved to Florida. Puchner died in 2021 and the corporation Fronczak used to own the property has been administratively dissolved.

More than $100,000 in property taxes are owed on the site, according to tax records.  And the building is eligible for tax foreclosure, according to the county’s Department of Administrative Services. But the county does not want to take control of the property because of the extensive environmental remediation the site requires.

Lean Design Werks will work with LF Green Development to conduct the assessment and develop a plan to remediate the site, and then work with the county to take ownership. The total project costs are estimated at approximately $900,000. The company will contribute approximately $135,000 and apply for WEDC-Brownfield and DNR Ready for Reuse funds up to $300,000. The firm also plans to work with a traditional lender, the Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation and a local community development financial institution (CDFI) to finance the rest of the project, according to the SAG grant.

“We would not be here without the DNR, without WEDC, without Milwaukee County and City of St. Francis,” Bunger said. “Those four entities are really coming together and giving us the support, which is just, it’s really, really awesome.”

Nothing is set in stone at this point. The property technically is still owned by Fronczak and the environmental assessment needs to be conducted. What’s more, the project remains a risk for the company as it will have to invest capital before it can take ownership of the property

But the Bungers are excited about the prospect of moving their business to Milwaukee. It will allow them to begin hiring additional employees and bring more women and people of color into robotics and advanced manufacturing, Renata said.

The plan is to grow the business by taking some of the custom systems they’ve designed and turn them into products that can be applied to a variety of uses, Dale said. Willie Smith and the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation has helped the firm develop the new product aspect of their business with seed funds, Renata said.

If the project goes according to plan, Lean Design Werks will remove a polluted reminder of the historical flight of manufacturing and industry from Milwaukee, bringing a new advanced manufacturing operation to an old building.

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2 thoughts on “Beloit Company Plans Move to St. Francis”

  1. Daniel Adams says:

    I grew up down the block from this building. Used to catch the bus across the street every day. Would be great to see this project work out. Best of luck to the Bungers.

  2. mr_cox says:

    “In 2018, Fronczak stopped paying property taxes on the building and has since retired and moved to Florida.”

    What prevents pursuing Fronczak legally for payment of back taxes? So tired of hearing the public have to pay back taxes and remediation for corrupt business owners.

    Sue Fronczak, liquidate his property, and end his ill-gotten retirement.

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