Speakers praise city and partnerships during Lawler School Lofts’ groundbreaking

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Kevin McDonell, vice president for development with the Commonwealth Companies, digs in at the groundbreaking ceremony Thursday on the grounds of the former St. Mary’s Academy/Wyalusing Academy. The main building will become a 40-unit apartment building called Lawler School Lofts. Also enjoying the ground-breaking are River to Valley Initiatives (RVI) President Julia Henley, RVI Vice President J.D. Milburn, Chief Operating Officer of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority Brian Schimming, Prairie du Chien Mayor Dave Hemmer, Judy Wall of RVI, Kevin McDonell, Dell McCoy of Chase Bank, Commonwealth Companies President Louie Lange III, and former Director of Wyalusing Academy Mary Beth Specht. (Photo by Ted Pennekamp)


By Ted Pennekamp


Several attended a ground-breaking ceremony Thursday afternoon at the former St. Mary’s Academy/Wyalusing Academy which will soon become a 40-unit apartment building called Lawler School Lofts in Prairie du Chien. 

Several people spoke about the $8.7 million project prior to using a gold shovel to dig up a piece of ground on the front lawn. Snacks and lemonade were then served.

“We are excited that Commonwealth will create 40 homes,” said River to Valley Initiatives Vice President J.D. Milburn.

River to Valley Initiatives (RVI) of Prairie du Chien recently sold the property to Commonwealth Companies of Fond du Lac, who will conduct the historic preservation and reuse project. The former owner, Clinicare Corporation of West Allis, who ran Wyalusing Academy since 1969, donated the property to RVI in July of 2015.

“It’s partnerships that make a project of this size happen,” stated Milburn. “The community of Prairie du Chien said loud and clear, ‘preserve this historic building.’ So, RVI partnered with Clinicare Corporation to create a development plan, with the intent to save the structure for future generations. After sorting through various parties, we settled on an agreement with the Commonwealth Companies, who said they would reuse the beautiful structure behind us.” 

“Many young people found hope and courage within the walls of this historic building,” said former Director of Wyalusing Academy Mary Beth Specht. “So, it’s great to preserve and develop this building thoughtfully.”

“It takes an amazing amount of teamwork to get seven different financial partners and countless community partners together to make a project like this happen,” said Vice President of Development at Commonwealth Kevin McDonell. “A project like this is challenging but fun, and it’s very rewarding when it gets done. The city of Prairie du Chien and the many residents and organizations that we have met along the way have all been great, and I can’t thank the community enough for their support.”

McDonell also thanked the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) who allocated $512,777 in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to help finance the project. McDonell noted that over the next 10 years, the tax credits will add up to nearly $5.13 million toward the project.

“Without a commitment from WHEDA, none of these projects would have a chance of having a celebration like we are having today,” said McDonell.

McDonell also acknowledged RVI for not only selling the property to Commonwealth but for also garnering community support. He went on to express gratitude for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office for state historic tax credits of just under $1.5 million, U.S. Bank who provided almost $6 million in equity, Chase Bank who provided a construction loan of $6 million and a permanent loan of $654,000, Wisconsin’s Division of Housing for $468,000 in HOME funds, Associated Bank for state historic equity of just under $1 million and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago for a $510,000 Affordable Housing Program Grant.

“Instead of being a blight on the neighborhood, the Lawler School Lofts project will transform the original St. Mary’s College into 40 apartments and a mix of two and three bedroom units that will continue to serve the community with pride for years to come,” said McDonell.

“This project will be great for the community and the whole state,” noted Brian Schimming, chief operating officer of WHEDA. “Only the best projects get these awards. It is an extremely intense competition for these tax credits. They don’t make these types of buildings anymore. This has historic significance. It’s in a great location with great views. You (Prairie du Chien) did it when some communities wouldn’t have gotten it done. So, congratulations to the city and all of the partners.”

Louie Lange III, the president of Commonwealth Companies, recognized Prairie du Chien Mayor Dave Hemmer and the city for all of their support.

“Commonwealth is committed to the communities we help develop and we are excited to become a part of Prairie du Chien,” said Lange.

Construction on the 80,000-square-foot building on the Lawler School Lofts property, 601 S. Beaumont Road, is expected to begin in August. The project is expected to be completed in August of 2018.

McDonell said the apartments will rent in the range of $500 to just under $900. There will be an exercise room, business center, tenant storage, community room and an on-site property management office. The general contractor for the project will be Commonwealth Construction Corporation. The building will retain its historic look, yet will have modern amenities.

Lawler School Lofts is named after John Lawler, who, in the late 1800s, transferred railroad cars and passengers across the Mississippi River by ferry. In 1874, he created the pontoon railroad bridge that operated until 1961. He donated the land, once a part of the second Fort Crawford, to the Catholic nuns for a girls’ school in 1870. Lawler also contributed funds for the construction of St. Mary’s Academy, which educated young women for almost a century before it closed in 1968. It operated as Wyalusing Academy from 1969 until 2013 as a private school and residential facility dedicated to teaching students life, academic and job skills.

RVI President Julia Henley said the next phase is for RVI to plan for possible re-development of the mechanical building and for the nine acres RVI owns adjacent to the main building, which will become Lawler School Lofts. The nine acres are positioned along Main Street and parallel to the Mississippi River. Henley said the next phase could be up to a $20 million project.

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