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Saturday, April 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Fair
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OPINION

Success in Fitchburg
A troubled housing complex turns the corner with a new owner

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It's amazing how a few kicks in the behind can be a catalyst for change. That sure was the case with the troubled Ridgewood Country Club Apartments in Fitchburg.

Residents of the state's largest apartment complex complained for years about repair and maintenance problems, concerns that eventually were echoed by Fitchburg officials worried about crime taking root in the poorly managed complex of 832 units.

Only when the owners, West Allis-based Ridgewood Associates, went belly-up in April 2005 and a local group, E.J. Plesko & Associates, bought the 55 buildings for $29 million did things began to turn around.

Plesko pledged to invest millions in repairs and to bring in a new management company. Their goal: to transform this troubled complex into a community that values its multiculturalism and fosters strong families.

Count me among the skeptics who doubted that Plesko would live up to its promises, but I was proven wrong.

All those kicks in the pants did the trick. First, the code violations had gotten so bad that Fitchburg Mayor Tom Clauder deployed a Fitchburg building inspector to work full-time at Ridgewood. The inspector identified no fewer than 280 code problems.

I'm talking about broken windows, malfunctioning appliances, mold and roaches, and drywall collapsing after a heavy rain and injuring a 6-year-old boy. The problems were seemingly endless.

With the vacancy rate hovering at a catastrophic 50%, the old management company took to cannibalizing empty apartments to fix the occupied ones. I guess going to Menards wasn't in the plans.

The grand finale was a big fire that seriously damaged two apartment buildings and closed 60 units, displacing mostly Latino families.

The new owner and its management company, Fiduciary Real Estate Development (FRED), had their work cut out -nearly $3.5 million in improvements, including new siding and energy-efficient windows and a complete make-over of the apartments.

To foster a better sense of community, Plesko created two management groups - one working with residents north of the golf course, called The Fairway, and the other south of the course, called The Pines.

Rob Dicke, the manager at The Pines, impresses me with his commitment to building a sense of community among the residents.

To improve communications with the heavily immigrant population, half of the maintenance staff and almost 75% of the office staff Dicke hired is bilingual. This is a smart move, and something that needs to be done more often in Dane County.

If you're going to work with people who speak a different language, then have staff who speak that language.

The remodeled buildings also began accepting Section 8 vouchers from low-income applicants, something that isn't widely known. Though virtually all of the apartments and townhouses are offered as market-rate rentals, Plesko will occasionally drop some prices on units that aren't moving well or even eliminate the first month's rent as an inducement.

One of Dicke's savvier moves has been reaching out to neighborhood stakeholders - Leopold Elementary School, Park Bank, Arbor-Covenant Church, local businesses, Dane County Human Services and a neighborhood group called the Leopold Area Resource Coalition.

Forming alliances is a prerequisite for community building. The Leopold coalition assembled many of these players, but I want to single one out. I'm talking about Joining Forces for Families, a critical component in Dane County Human Services' efforts to marshal support for children and families in troubled circumstances.

The Leopold group had initially recommended putting a family resource center in The Pines and The Fairway. But recognizing that government and foundation funding for this sort of thing is declining, they decided on the next-best thing - convincing the county to place a Joining Forces for Families social worker in the neighborhood.

That would be social worker Ruth Ruiz, who's worked well with the burgeoning Latino community and helped put the Kinder-Ready Initiative into place. This partnership involving the Children's Service Society of Wisconsin, United Way, CUNA Mutual and the Madison school district helps prepare low-income children and their parents for kindergarten.

This is exactly the sort of collaborative early-intervention program this neglected community needs. My concern is that its funding will dry up, always a threat when it comes to sustaining human service programs for the long haul.

But with the number of families on public assistance increasing by 38% over the past six years in the Leopold School/South Fish Hatchery Road area, that steady commitment is sorely needed.

Yet the county's Children, Youth and Families budget has been cut by more than $2 million since 2001, and the governor sometimes goes wobbly on funding these programs as well.

That's a shame. Fitchburg's problem neighborhood is still a long way from full recovery. Plesko has done its part and as a reward earned a well-deserved "Property of the Year" award from its industry peers.

Now's the time to keep the creative juices flowing and the money pouring in. Government and community funders need to step up to the challenge.

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