Epic Systems Corp. What it does: Provides integrated electronic recordkeeping for health-care providers. Clients include: Kaiser Permanente, UW Medical Foundation, Dean Health System, the Cleveland Clinic, E
First published January 27, 2006
Two-lane country roads flanked by gnarled trees and red-barn farmsteads still meander within view of the 380-acre office- campus that medical software leader Epic Systems Corp. is building on the western corner of Verona.
Several hundred yards from where construction cranes pierce the gray sky above Epic's expanding hilltop aerie like giant metal porcupine quills, red-tail hawks take wing and scan the snow-covered ground for errant rabbits and voles. And just down the road, a sign staked into the median of West Verona Avenue welcomes the 700 or so Epic workers to Verona, an official "Hometown U.S.A."
Verona remains a great place to live and work, but annexation has made the sign's location obsolete. Epic's hilltop campus and a gaggle of new homes in the nearby Westridge subdivision have pulled the growth-supporting sewer and fresh water pipes beyond the cornfields that defined the city's old western boundary. No longer rural but not yet suburban, the altered landscape exemplifies the chaotic logic of growth on Madison's periphery.
On the plus side, Epic founder Judith Faulkner has made a point of being sensitive to the company's new surroundings. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Verona city administrator Larry Saeger and others say that Epic has done all the right things with its own land.
The buildings employ geothermal technology for heating and cooling. A large parking ramp eliminates the possibility of uncontrolled runoff from a humongous suburban-style parking lot. And Epic spokesperson Terri Leigh Statz says the company will keep leasing land to a working farm on a portion of its property.
Epic's willingness to blend with the existing landscape is laudable. Even so, Epic's decision to eventually bring more than 2,000 employees and thousands of visitors out to the countryside is sure to catalyze more growth in the already development-stressed western and southern Dane County.
County Supv. Brett Hulsey is among those applauding Epic's efforts to build "green," but he's alarmed at the likely consequences of one of Madison's largest employers moving to the cornfields of Verona.
"First it was Alliant Energy [moving its headquarters from downtown to the far east side in the American Center] and then this," says Hulsey, who runs the consulting firm Better Environmental Solutions.
"Once you start getting your development patterns that dispersed, your traffic just starts to soar," he continues. "What we're seeing in Dane County right now is that traffic is growing twice as fast as population. Traffic's growing at about 3% a year and population is growing 1½% a year. So the more dispersed employment you get, the more dispersed housing you get.
"It's just a vicious cycle."
The 40-minute commute
Mike Slavney, a planner with Vandewalle & Associates and a key contributor to Falk's "Attain Dane!" countywide planning initiative, concurs. "What Epic does is push the commuter-shed southwestward maybe three, four, five miles," he says. That means housing development will push that farther out into the countryside.
There's an age-old dynamic at work here, he explains. Throughout the history of cities, the preferred commute to work -- whether by foot, by ox cart or by Lexus -- has been 40 minutes or less, Slavney notes. Now, new development probably would get to Verona's western border anyway, he says. "But Epic was a leap in terms of a major employment center. It wasn't built in the Fitchburg business park or in Verona at the existing corporate park there. Instead, it was built three miles past that.
"Epic pushes the 20-minute to 40-minute commuter shed out three to five miles," Slavney says.
It might not happen immediately, but those extended commutes will be felt across southwestern Dane County. "I think Mount Horeb's going to see a huge boom," Hulsey says. "It'll go all the way to Dodgeville. And there's already development pressure around Governor Dodge State Park from people commuting into Madison who live in big mansions right on the edge of the park."
Falk, while pleased that a high-tech leader like Epic decided to remain in Dane County, tried last fall to convince the state Department of Natural Resources to reconsider a proposed 564-acre expansion of Verona's urban service area. Her concern? The new development could jeopardize one of Dane County's environmental assets -- the brown trout fishery in nearby Badger Mill Creek.
Falk's effort failed, and if Verona stays true to its comprehensive plan, the sewer and water line extensions will eventually support 1,500 new homes, some of which are destined to be occupied by Epic employees.
Falk remains hopeful that Attain Dane!, as well as ongoing attempts to replace the defunct Regional Planning Commission with another countywide planning entity, will lead to more manageable growth. Still, she worries that the rural attractions of the Verona area have been put at risk.
"There are tremendous natural resources in that part of the county, including the Sugar River and Bad Creek watershed," Falk says. "All of us in government need to make sure that the development impacts don't undermine our efforts to protect these resources. That takes local government working together in ways that we're just not accustomed to doing well enough."
Madison's missed opportunity
It didn't have to be this way.
Epic was founded in Madison 27 years ago and qualifies as the city's greatest high-tech success story. But the company decided to leave Madison when it became clear that then-Mayor Sue Bauman and other local politicians couldn't deliver on a deal to give the company sufficient room to grow near its cramped quarters in the old Odana school and at the nearby Westgate Mall and UW Research Park.
Losing Epic was a major blunder by the city, one that had serious implications for Madison's efforts to nurture a high-tech economic base.
Of course, attracting a leading medical software firm was simultaneously a major boon for Verona. What had been a growing bedroom community was now destined to become ground zero for a new wave of development stretching 30 miles beyond Madison's southwestern border. Further, Epic's international reputation in health-care circles meant Verona gained name recognition outside of Wisconsin as well.
"Epic all of a sudden put Verona on a lot of radar," Dave Phillips, executive director of the Verona Area Chamber of Commerce, says proudly.
In 2005, Epic's $150 million project helped expand Verona's tax base by nearly 25% over the previous year, and city administrator Saeger muses that Epic's property valuation could ultimately approach $500 million. However, due to the city using tax increment financing for the parking and site improvements that helped seal the deal, the new property tax dollars won't be going into Verona's general fund for years. But that's okay, say Verona officials. Epic will generate other growth in the city.
Better still, the company's young, well-paid, well-educated employees represent exactly the kind of 21st-century workforce that Dane County -- not to mention the state as a whole -- has been desperate to cultivate. (In 2004, a company trainer told The Wisconsin State Journal that the average Epic salary exceeded $39,000.)
Says Slavney, "Those Epic employees are the quintessential, highly desirable demographic group that communities" compete for.
On a cold weekday morning in December, the traffic on Highway 18-151 heading into Verona is steady but not heavy enough to frustrate an inveterate commuter. County M, the other access route from southwestern Madison, is clogged, but that's been happening for years and can't be blamed on Epic's relocation. Right now, Epic's most visible impact on Verona doesn't extend much beyond the five buildings in the first phase of campus construction.
That will change. Verona officials, eager to have Epic's employees and visitors spend money within the city borders, have green-lighted commercial development for 60 acres served by an on/off ramp from Highway 18-151 constructed expressly to improve access to the Epic campus. The acreage abuts a working farm, but it won't be growing corn.
Instead, Saeger says community leaders hope to see restaurants, hotels and retail businesses spring up on the empty acres. "That is the kind of development that Verona needs," Phillips agrees. "And it's a great location. Great visibility. It'll be very popular."
Popular indeed. With 700 or so people now working on the Verona campus, Epic is already the city's largest employer. By the end of next year, Epic spokesperson Statz says the campus workforce will swell to 1,500, a 100% increase in Verona's current employment base. Eventually, the campus may be home to as many as 3,000 employees.
Employees aren't the only newcomers who'll be taking to Verona's streets in the coming years. A steady stream of out-of-town visitors from the company's marquee customer, California-based HMO giant Kaiser Permanente, and from other health-care clients, will be traveling to Verona and filling the 2,000-plus-seat training and meeting facility Epic plans to open in 2007.
Because Epic has no plans to build lodging on its own property, it's a safe bet that cookie-cutter motels with their runoff-prone surface parking lots will sprout down the road from Epic's eco-friendly campus.
Retail shopping centers and chain restaurants are certainly in the city's future as well. Now that Verona is approaching the 10,000 population sweet spot that makes big-box retailers sit up and take notice, a Wal-Mart, Kohl's or large-scale bookstore seem certain to arrive. (Last year, Verona failed to pass a big-box ordinance that had been prepared in anticipation of the retail behemoths' arrival.)
Verona would be smart to study Sun Prairie's experience. In 1980, Sun Prairie was a small factory town and farm center with a population of just over 12,000. Then, in 1982, General Casualty Insurance moved from downtown Madison to Sun Prairie. Today, the city boasts more than 24,000 residents, and nearly all of the land running from its own downtown to the eastern border of Madison is either developed or under contract for development.
This has fed strip after strip of big boxes, chain restaurants and other retail and hospitality businesses that fan out from East Washington Avenue and I-94.
General Casualty didn't transform Sun Prairie all by itself. Young couples looking for cheaper new housing and American Family's development of 400 acres of farmland into the American Center office park (where Alliant Energy moved in 2002) also helped spark an array of moderate- to high-priced subdivisions in nearby Sun Prairie.
The lesson Sun Prairie's growth spurt teaches is simple: Once a community embraces big development, the genie is unleashed.
To be fair, Verona is used to accommodating population surges. Between 2000 and 2004, the city added 2,051 residents, nearly all of them occupying housing in new subdivisions. It remains the fastest-growing city in Dane County, despite a decision in 2002 to cap construction of single-family homes at 125 per year, an effort to help local schools keep up with the influx of new students.
Saeger argues that Verona's fine school system, not Epic, explains the housing growth. He adds, "You've got a small-town atmosphere, an excellent school district, a commutable distance to employment, entertainment and retail shopping opportunities."
As Saeger sees it, Verona's proximity to Madison guaranteed that it would be caught up in the same inexorable push for urban growth that transformed the old farm town of Fitchburg into a city of 20,000-plus over the past 20 years. That's why Madison's subdivisions are already within a couple miles of Verona's eastern flank. And it shouldn't be a surprise that Phillips reports that 55% of Verona's workforce commutes to Madison for their jobs.
But nowhere is it written that Epic's arrival means rapid growth is the only path to the future. Yet Verona seems locked in that mindset. Witness the recent talk of merging the city with the town of Verona to fend off Madison annexations.
Verona Mayor John Volker told The Capital Times the chief reason for political integration was "so we could both preserve the areas we want to preserve, without having the county's influence over it."
That was a shot aimed at Falk, whose advocacy of comprehensive planning rankles certain developers and community officials who believe "local control" should be paramount when it comes to deciding land-use issues.
Left to their own devices, however, communities in southwestern Dane County are struggling to cope with the demand for new housing.
Belleville is a good example. The little community of 2,083 lies about 10 miles down the Sugar River from Verona, straddling the border of Dane and Green counties. Currently, it's a picturesque throwback, with a tidy town square, a handful of local businesses and a beautiful location on a dammed, wildlife-rich portion of the Sugar River.
But plan commission chair Terry Kringle says that the village had to suspend the platting of new subdivisions while it expands the water treatment facility to accommodate another 1,000 residents. The plant, mind you, was constructed in 1997 and was believed to be big enough to serve Belleville's needs through 2017.
But as homebuyers are realizing, lots are cheaper in Belleville than in Verona or even Mount Horeb, and the roads into Verona and Madison allow for a manageable commute. For newcomers looking for a rural lifestyle, it's a package hard to resist.
That's the problem.
"We've had housing pressure without Epic," says Kringle. "But, yes, we are anticipating some kind of pressure from Epic's location. We've been told by our professional [planners] that there are kind of two rings [of development] around Madison. We're in the second ring and the pressure is just beginning."
In the short run, most Epic workers are likely to be reverse commuters to Verona from west Madison and nearby suburban communities. But an employee survey conducted by Epic and the Verona Area Chamber of Commerce revealed that 40% intend to move within the next five years and nearly a third have their sights set on Verona. Unsurprisingly, developers and homebuilders are excited by that prospect.
Bob Brochman of Stark Realty sells houses in the Verona area, and he admits he doesn't have a clear idea of how soon the influx might arrive. Still, he's already made a handful of sales to Epic employees in a newer, more expensive portion of the Westridge subdivision. The prospect for future sales looks good, he says.
The real test will come this spring when the homebuying season traditionally heats up and Epic workers have had a chance to sample Verona's charms as well as the intensity of the rush-hour traffic.
"We've heard from people that they want to work out there and test the commute and see how it is," Brochman says.
"I think it's hard for people who have lived on the west side of Madison, and who are comfortable there, to just pull up and move out to Verona," he says. "Most of them have no idea of the size of the city and what's available and what's not. So I think it's one of those deals where they're going to have to feel their way through a little bit. But, certainly, we would expect that many more people will eventually want to live out there."
Slavney won't be surprised if Epic-related housing sprouts immediately in Verona, Belleville and elsewhere in the southwestern precincts of the county. Commuting from Madison to Verona, he predicts, will just be too hellish.
Commuters already deal with the huge bottleneck that begins where Verona Road passes under the Beltline and becomes Highway 18-151 and gets teeth-grindingly worse with traffic headed to Home Depot, and a clutch of other large retailers clogs the six-lane road's flow in both directions.
The massive Verona Road reconstruction that was proposed a few years ago has yet to be approved, let alone funded, and the state Department of Transportation's John Vesperman admits that it will be years before any big changes are made on this stretch of road. The immediate future for the already heavily traveled traffic corridor is a commuting nightmare.
"If that highway continues to get worse and worse, the tolerance for the commute distance is going to go down and down, because time-wise it's getting worse and worse," says Slavney. "The pressure for Epic's workers to move their place of residence to Verona is going to be higher."
Slavney also feels that demographic change will push suburban homebuilding. As Epic's current crop of 28- and 29-year-old employees begin to age and enter the child-raising stage of life, urban condos and apartments will have less appeal.
"What they're interested in at age 38 is a completely different set of values," he says. "They're maybe thinking about schools, and they're thinking about building equity in a home. Then a community like Verona or the town of Springdale is more appealing to them
"It's a symbiotic relationship, too," he adds, "because as they're changing, Verona will likely be changing, too, and responding to Epic."
To be sure, Epic is not a villain in this scenario. The kinds of jobs it provides are widely acknowledged as the best economic platform for securing the future of Dane County and the state. On the other hand, the growth the company will spark beyond Madison's city limits can threaten the very ecological treasures and rural features that local residents value so highly.
Indeed, if you look at the satellite map of the Verona area available at Google maps, the big white splotch of Epic's emerging campus appears to be overwhelming the trim, green rectangles of land still in agriculture that surround it.
It's a disturbing graphic and suggests anything but a carefully managed, eco-friendly future out on those cornfields.