Blog : Williams Bay

Walworth County Market Update

Walworth County Market Update

When you’re a Realtor, you’re supposed to want to do everything you can to sell anything you can. You’re supposed to pay attention to every segment within your market, to the goings on in the rental world, to the commercial things, to vacant land and to that cute bungalow in town. The one near the school.  Realtors are told to be experts. In the next breath, they’re told to be always available, always present, always here for whomever it is that requires service. This is all a terrible mistake, and not coincidentally, this desire to do all things is the reason that most agents can’t achieve success.

Now, take this guy on the other hand. I don’t really want to do any business that isn’t the sort of business I want. If you own a wonderful apartment building in Elkhorn, I’m super happy for you. But I don’t know enough about the rental market in Elkhorn and the desired returns of that particular investor community, so I can’t (and won’t) successfully work with you. I’m not a commercial guy. In the same way, I don’t know anything about the single family housing market in Darien. I heard it’s okay. Taxes are high. That’s all I know, and as such, you wouldn’t be doing yourself any favor if you were to wish for my services in Darien.

The benefit of this narrow focus is as obvious as the detriment. I am not all things to all markets. I’m all things to one market. That’s my goal, and that’s my life, and I’ve made a decent little living serving only one master. But today isn’t about me, no matter how well I’ve done so far to leave you with that impression. Today is about the broad Walworth County market. Today isn’t about Lake Geneva, it’s about everywhere else. The markets in these other areas are thriving. Absolutely, positively, thriving.

Want to buy a little cottage on Cherry Street in Williams Bay for less than $200k? So did someone else. The house is pending. Want to buy a vinyl ranch in Lakewood Trails? Yeah, so does everyone else. Feel like a little starter house in Delavan for $69k? Too late. It sold. How’s about a late 80s raised ranch, complete with some sort of brown brick and a mismatched brown roof? Pending.  Delavan is doing well, except on the lakefront, where there appears to be just one home pending sale today. Earlier, I meant to say everywhere is going fantastic, except Delavan Lake.

Want to find a reasonably decent house on 3-5 acres in the country somewhere? Nowhere in particular, just somewhere around here-ish?  Ideally under $400k. Good luck! Those homes are selling at a feverish pace, and inventory is low.  Darien has 14 homes available, five are under contract.  Elkhorn has 34 homes for sale. 18 of those are under contract. Nine others are pending sale.  That’s absolutely remarkable if you think about it. Amazing, really. Well done, sub-$250k buyer. You’re buying, and you’re smart.

Why is the primary market here doing so well?  It’s thriving today because the prices are still modest, still reasonable, still affordable. The interest rates are low but rising, and this market is super sensitive to rates, and to the threat of increased monthly costs. The primary market is performing well, but over $350k that strength dries up. Consider the city of Lake Gnevea, where 40 homes are available today. Of those 40, 25 are priced under $350k. Of those 25,  ten are under contract. Another four are pending.  Over $350k? Not a single under contract or pending sale.

And all of that makes solid sense. The primary housing market is driven by those people who work here, and most of the jobs in a resort market are the sorts of jobs that can support home ownership on a modest level. A nice Walworth County job can buy a $275k colonial on a lot that was home to corn not so long ago, but most Walworth County jobs cannot support purchases over $350k.  But this isn’t about jobs and it isn’t about interest rates and it isn’t about me. It’s just about the primary housing market, and today I tip my hat to a vibrant market segment that I have absolutely nothing to do with.

 

Photo courtesy Kristen Westlake.
Lake Geneva News

Lake Geneva News

I try my best to avoid involving myself with the municipal governments in this area. I care deeply about what happens here, about the future, about the way the whole thing seems to be turning out. That’s why I fight development, because it’s unnecessary and it’s evil and I wish Chicago developers would worry more about Chicago developments than rural ones. I shy away from fighting with the municipalities over things I feel are wrong, because the fight here is skewed and largely unfair. That’s because the tax base is large, owing that entirely to the vacation home set and their weekend homes, and yet the voting and decisions are carried out solely by those who live here full time.  The residents vote to spend the tax money of their neighbors who don’t have a say in the matter. That irritates me, and so I generally let sleeping, bloated, tax ladened dogs lie.

But sometimes it’s all too much, and I need to say a few words about the local happenings. And so here it goes. First up, more rumors and innuendo and hushed threats over the Geneva Inn. This is the old hotel on the southeast corner of the lake that used to be known as the Shore Club. This restaurant/hotel is in Linn Township, but the city of Lake Geneva covets it, and the development groups who eye it routinely wish to annex it to the city of Lake Geneva so that they can obtain city water and sewer. There’s much to discuss here, but there’s only one thing that matters. Development in this corner of the lake would be bad for the area. We do not need more development here, no matter what shape it takes, and we certainly don’t need some circus on that end of the lake. If you care about the lake and you like things the way they are, email the City of Lake Geneva and tell them to deny any annexation requests or development requests for the Geneva Inn.

Speaking of the city, there’s a new restaurant being built next to Popeye’s. Oak Fire Pizza, it might be two words not three, bought their building a few years ago. They renovated the building. They opened and they served me pizza that was decent, but soggy in the middle. Then they tore the building down and now they’re erecting a new building, to serve pizza. It’s a big gamble, a huge expense, but this is a good thing for the area. I don’t like development, this is obvious, but re-development of existing things should be encouraged, always. Lake Geneva is at a bit of an intersection these days. On one hand, rents are too high and certain marquee locations are sitting empty, an obvious sign of landlord/tennant disputes over reasonable rental rates. On the other hand, renovation and expansion is occurring, which cannot be anything but good so long as that expansion is simply replacing the tattered with the shiny, and not inventing new locations to cram the shiny.

Williams Bay likes money. They like it a lot. That’s why they several years ago approved an auto repair shop to be built on their main drag, just a few hundred feet from the lake. Any reasonable town with a reasonable eye towards the future would have denied this request, but Williams Bay is eager to play with the big boys like Fontana and Williams Bay and so they approve things that shouldn’t be approved. Like when the Williams Bay School Board pulled a fast one on the town and was allowed to collect tax dollars to fund the demolition of the old school building but then decided, instead, to sell the school building and pocket the dedicated funds. Williams Bay now wants to build a fire house. A new, shiny fire house. The fire house will cost a couple million because why not? We need a new fire house because the old one is too small for $500k fire trucks, and there aren’t even sleeping rooms in the old fire house. I can’t figure out why a volunteer fire department who battles fires on such an infrequent basis would need to sleep at their fire house. Baby, don’t treat me bad, indeed. Tell the Village of Williams Bay to knock it off, fire houses are for cities, silly.  On the heels of building a $20MM grade school, it takes a significant amount of gall to expect tax payers to fund a new firehouse of such royal proportions.

Speaking of easy tax dollars, a massive TIF grant was awarded to the new owner of the Geneva Theatre. Geneva 4, it’s called. I watched Hot Shots there from the front row, my neck crooked skyward, because it was 1991 and we rode our bikes there and we were late. The theatre has been in disrepair for ages, and so a new buyer surfaced last year and the city handed out bushels of tax dollars to aid in the renovations. The theatre now looks interesting,  art deco ish, but interesting. It was supposed to open on March 1st, but it didn’t. It’s supposed to open today, but who knows if it will. I asked the theatre manager for a tour of the property this week but was ignored, so perhaps they don’t want me to write nice things about their efforts.  I can’t tell you if they’re opening or not, but judging by the number of construction trucks outside the theatre yesterday it appears as though they’re giving max effort. The theatre will be open by summer, that we can be sure of, and it would be nice of you to visit it. I’m happy something was done here, and I’m happy the theatre remains a theatre and not a handful of t-shirt shops.

The biggest threat to the Lake Geneva market is not from outside forces. It’s not from greedy developers. The biggest threat is from within. It’s from the boards that run these small towns, the board members who so badly wish to matter. They want to make a splash, for the children they say, for the future. For this and for that, but the efforts are almost always guided by cliche and misunderstood standards that are rarely, if ever, challenged. Development does not make a community better.  Fire houses with sleeping quarters are not necessary. Hotels should be hotels, not water parks with carnivals surrounding them. The county and municipalities need to protect this lake, to protect the interests of those who make their living here at the same time as they protect those who fund all of this with their generous tax dollars. The best path forward is always one of caution, and when markets get hot caution is the narrowest of paths.

The Future

The Future

Twenty years ago today was a normal day. Nothing much happened. I woke up and I drove myself to the gas station across from Daddy Maxwell’s, and I walked over to the new machine in the corner. It was a cappuccino machine, and it whirled and spit out a sugary, foamy drink that in no way resembles what I know a cappuccino to be today. It was the highlight of my morning, and I’d sip it a bit over the mile of bumpy roads that led to my high school. Harris Road was bumpy then, and it’s bumpy today. In twenty years, it’ll be bumpy.

My homeroom was in the kitchen of Calvary Church.  My freshman class was made up of the same kids, but there were more of them then. After the freshman year, some of the kids left, through expulsion or systematic suspension, or because their parents got divorced or were thinking about getting divorced. The kids were there and then they weren’t, but the nucleus remained through the years. By the time we were relegated to the kitchen for our homeroom, there were just 12 of us left. I had my Saab 900 in gunmetal gray, my leather computer bag before people stashed tablets and laptops in them, and I had my cappuccino that wasn’t really a cappuccino at all.

Our lunchroom was our gym, and we’d eat quickly so we could work in games of 21 on the other end of the gym. Our classrooms were in the basement of that church, so on nice days we’d sneak outside to soak in the spring or fall sunshine. It was during one of these breakaways that I was yelled at by a school administrator that I know to this day. When I see him, I assume he remembers that day, and I secretly hate him for it. During a similar lunch break my friend and I pulled the fire alarm, because it was red and there and we were hopped up on faux cappuccinos and lunchtime basketball. We confessed only after being told the police department was on their way over to dust for prints. Our confession wasn’t entirely truthful, but they bought it and we weren’t particularly punished.

Most weeknights, I would take my leather computer bag and drive to Gateway Technical College to listen to some real estate person tell me what I needed to know about the business of real estate. That man told me what I should say and what I shouldn’t say, and while I sat in class with a throng of individuals who are nearly entirely no longer in the business, I took notes, diligently. When the class was over I’d stuff my notebook into my leather briefcase satchel and drive myself home. The next morning, I’d drive to the gas station, sip the sugary drink, then drive the bumpy road to school and park where the kids could get a good look at my Saab 900 that I bought for $3500 and pull up a stool to the kitchen island. This was my senior year.

These mornings, my wife makes me a cappuccino. It’s not really a cappuccino, it’s just a double shot of espresso and some steamed milk, which I suppose would make it a latte but the ratio of espresso to milk is 1:1 so it’s less like a late and more like an espresso with some milk in it. It’s tremendously good. I drink that drink and I wonder why it took me 20 years to buy a proper espresso machine, and then I wonder who the monsters are that still drink drip coffee when such fabulous espresso machines are available. Then I wonder about the people who put a puck of compressed coffee into a machine that whirls the expresso out and I think of that time I stopped at Williams Sonoma in Lake Forest and tasted one of these so called espressos. Then I finish the coffee and my kids load into the car and I drop them off at the newer location of the same school that I drove myself to 20 years ago.

Outside of this window, beyond this desk and beyond this large computer screen, I can see the office I started working at in August of 1996. I was barely out of high school, barely aware of anything at all, and I sat in that office wearing an ill-fitting shirt and a tie I borrowed from my dad’s closet and I’d hope the phone would ring. When it rang, I’d wish it hadn’t. I bought my first computer and I hooked it up to this new internet, and I’d email people and wait a few days for their response. I had a pager then, which I thought was a remarkable bit of mobile technology. All I had to do was wear it on my belt and it would vibrate when someone wanted something, though I couldn’t know what they wanted until I called them back. I wore it with pride in the way that a kid last summer might have worn his Apple Watch. But my pager was lame and I was lame for having it, but it was 1996 and things were strange and I still had that leather briefcase bag but no laptop to put in it.

Herb’s old gas station was still operating then, and his muffler shop next door hadn’t yet been torn down and replaced with an empty auto-repair shop. I’d stop in to see Herb for one reason or another, all of which related to mufflers, and it was during one of these visits when Herb told me that I wouldn’t be successful because I was too young. Who would work with me? I was too young, because this was before Josh Flagg squeaked and swaggered his way onto our televisions and back then, Realtors were white haired and they drove matching Cadillacs.  It was around that time that the Keg Room burned down.

The Keg Room is still burned down. Herb doesn’t own the gas station anymore, but there’s still a gas station on the corner. Daddy Maxwell’s still serves a heck of a cajun chicken sandwich, and there’s still a gas station across the street. Southwick Creek, where I saw my first trout,  is still flowing through culverts and still hosting a handful of trout that try so hard to stay alive. The beach is still where it was, and while there’s a new beach house I’ll bet that every once in a while a snapping turtle still follows Harris Creek into the lake and then the kids shriek and the beach mothers point and warn. Williams Bay today looks like it did twenty years ago, and that’s exactly what it’ll look like in twenty more.

The Keg Room Proposal: Another Miss

The Keg Room Proposal: Another Miss

I have not lived in Williams Bay since 1998. Williams Bay, however, is my home town and it is the town that I will name whenever someone asks me where I’m from, no matter where I am when they ask, or where I live at the time. I am from Williams Bay.  Because of this, I’m concerned about Williams Bay, and I wish nothing but the best for it. That’s why I’m once again having to explain what happens when out of town developers invade small communities.

Kane County Shodeen has once again set his sights on development in Walworth County, this time in Williams Bay. It wasn’t enough that he once proposed 4000+ units in Delavan Township, and now has 623 nearly approved near that original proposal site, with 180 more approved in Walworth, and 123 proposed (soon to be denied) near my house in the country. His appetite for development is seemingly insatiable, and now Williams Bay is in the cross hairs.  His development proposal, according to a Lake Geneva Regional News article, is for the Keg Room property on the corner of Geneva Street and Walworth Avenue. For those unaware of that location, it is, quite simply put, the most visible corner in the village.

The plan seeks to cram 31 units (28 small condominiums and up to 3 commercial spaces) on a corner that was previously approved to host just 16 units. The small one and two bedroom condominiums will range in size from 900-1100 square feet. The corner is busy now, with traffic pouring down Walworth to Pier 290, and Geneva Street buzzing past on the North. Everyone who knows this vacant corner knows that it needs to be developed. What I know, as a Williams Bay business owner and a Williams Bay native is that this is the wrong development for our marquee corner.

On a corner in Fontana, The Tracy Group is building a six unit townhouse development (pictured above), and they are absolutely beautiful.  The land that Tracy is building six units on is roughly one half acre. The land that Shodeen wishes to put 31 units on is roughly one half acre. Am I the only one who sees the problem here?  Tracy is putting 6 high end units in Fontana. Shodeen wants to put 31 units in Williams Bay (pictured below, courtesy the Lake Geneva Regional News). Why should Williams Bay deserve anything less than Fontana? Why would Williams Bay seek to approve a development that would render their prime corner a Kane County Special?

Kane County Keg Room Proposal, courtesy the Lake Geneva Regional News

Williams Bay has, for quite some time, wished for a revitalization of their downtown. I helped the cause, building a beautiful cottage style building for my real estate office. I built a small, shingle style property that blends with the surroundings and respects the historical aesthetic of Williams Bay. But I did this because I’m from here, and I care what my hometown looks like.  I want your view, as you drive through my town, to be pleasant. A Chicago developer comes here and sees only dollar signs, and if a 45′ tall building with underground parking and an apartment appearance is perceived to be the best way to make money, then that’s what will be proposed.

It’s back to the question of density and of style and of our intentions with this lovely county we call home. What are we trying to achieve here? Are we trying to grow and grow and by doing so lose our native appeal?  I’m not anti-development on the Keg Room property, I’m anti-this development on the Keg Room property.  I love the village of Williams Bay and always will, and it’s for that reason that I’m forced to fight for its future.  Some will say that the future is development, and it’s best to let it happen. Those are the people who see development in all shapes and density as a positive, and those are not the discerning people who each community needs in order to protect its identity. The lazy response to development is to sigh and approve it, to say it’s inevitable. The responsible approach is to question every aspect of it and if it doesn’t fit with the community, it should be quickly, and effortlessly denied.

I recognize I’m sounding a bit too Erin Brokovichy lately, but unfortunately I have to be this way. I care too much about this lake, this village, and this county, to idly sit by and watch a developer from Chicago change the nature of this place. I sell real estate here because I love it here. I live here because I love it here. I am raising my children here because I hope that they, one day, will recognize what a special place it is. For those reasons I must fight, and I need your help.  I want to keep Walworth rural, and I want to keep Williams Bay’s most important corner free from density.

If the developer wishes to withdraw this plan, I shall wash my eyes with bleach and consider the next plan. If the next plan looks like the Tracy development in Fontana, with 6-10 units in total, I’ll be the biggest proponent of the new plan. Until then, it’s a fight, and I’m far more motivated to defend my community than anyone might have previously guessed.  Please reach out to the Village of Williams Bay officials and tell them we don’t want this development front and center in our quiet beach town.

 

Road Work

Road Work

The signs made it known in July that the men would come to work on the road in August.  There was a sign taped to the door of this office, and one taped to the door of the office next door. The town new this was going to happen, because of the signs. Weeks before the men would arrive with their trucks and their diggers and their flags, but a week or two after the signs were taped to so many doors,  the orange and white barrier markers were shipped in. They came from the last town where the men put down the asphalt, back in that town somewhere else where they put the signs up that told everyone they’d be coming, long before they did. The orange barriers are wide and tall, substantial, portly.  They have the look of something you don’t want to hit with your car, though no fewer than two times I saw one hit by a car and very little happened to the car. The barriers aren’t that heavy, but they’re heavy enough to withstand the wind and the rain. They did their job in the last town and now they came to do their job in this town. The signs made us ready.

The barriers were to mark off a section of road, to tell those who didn’t read the signs that this thing was indeed happening. There were barriers dropped, each pushed off the back of a long trailer, every 30 feet or so. The men drove up one side of the road for most of the morning, spacing out the orange and white barrels. Then, after lunch, they drove down the other side of the road, back to where they started, dropping the barriers in the same pattern. The men who they trust with the plastic barrier pillars are not the same men that they trust with the earth movers. How could they be? There’s no way someone would move a barrier on a Tuesday and scrape up the road on a Wednesday. These are different men, different unions. They went to different training schools, in different parts of the country.

Once the markers were set, it was a scene. No signage could have prepared us for this.  So many barriers, so much distraction. In the afternoon when the sun sets low on the western horizon, it’s a trick to drive in that direction on this road. The road bends, but not enough. It just points towards the sun in a slightly uphill trajectory, making late afternoon driving a blinding event. How many barriers were hit into these late afternoons I cannot know. The crossing guard probably knows, no one else could. The barrels were moved, as needed, from the margins of the road and into the road, to make two lanes one, every driver obeying the women with the flags and the portable stop signs, especially the leathery one with the tattoos. Often, cars with plates from other states would disobey the signs and the flag waiving and they’d whip right around the barriers. The flag ladies would flap and waive, but those rogue drivers had already made the decision to ignore the signs and the barriers, no matter how many barriers there were.

The barriers were moved from the road and to the margins, then to the road from the margins. Back and forth as one lane was dug up, then the other. Then one lane was replaced with fresh asphalt, and the barrels were moved. When the project was done, the road was smooth. So smooth and so likable, except for the areas where the old manhole covers were too low for the new high grade. There are bumps there, but after some time we learned where they were and how to avoid them. We didn’t even need the barriers, though the barriers stayed. Once the torn up margins of the road were filled with new soil and fresh sod was laid on top, the barriers stayed. The barriers stayed right on top of the new sod, and when the truck came to spray water on the new sod, the barriers didn’t move. The road crew packed their diggers and their asphalt, they collected their signs and their portable flags. They had to get to the next town, because the signs had been circulated weeks ago, and the next town was wondering why everything was taking so long to begin. The last man on the last truck out of town grabbed the few remaining rolls of sod, and with that, they were gone.

The road was nice. Smooth and wide, striped and pretty. Bike lanes were labeled. The sod grew, the sidewalks were walked on. Everyone was in a pretty good mood about this new road. Visitors who hadn’t been to town for some time drove over the new road and commented, what a fine road this is.  The school children walked down the new sidewalks, past the new sod, paying little attention to the stationary decorations of orange and white, with those large rubber bases. The barriers were still there, and for those first few weeks it was obvious to everyone that the road crew would be back, soon, to get their belongings. But the fall came and the fall grew old. Halloween was over. The barriers remained. Old men in town walked down the roads, shaking their heads. Stopping, thinking, wondering who would leave such a large amount of barriers behind. Drivers driving up the road in the late afternoon squinted beneath their low-pulled ball caps to  see if they could tell the different between the stationary barrels and a child running towards the street. Traffic crawled.  Tempers flared.  I’m not one to get too angry over barrels, but I took offense to the ones in front of my view and I dragged them down the road a ways. No one noticed.

Yesterday, the men came back. They drove a truck, with a trailer, and they drove West up the road in the morning, picking up each barrel and stacking it neatly. After lunch, they drove back East, picking up the remainder. By evening, they were all gone. This morning, not a single barrier could be found, and I can barely contain my excitement. The road is finally finished, and what a road it is.