HELMSBURG — Brian Webb recently bought a house in Helmsburg for less than he would have paid for a car.

That’s a plus and it’s a minus, say members of Helmsburg’s new leadership team. They believe there is more value in their village than what is showing right now.

They have asked for county leaders’ help to clean it up and give it some new life.

“Most of us that live here, we would be happy if we had occupied houses and if we had any kind of business here,” said Cindy Steele, who’s been helping to steer the Helmsburg Leadership Team.

About 10 members of the team met with the Brown County Redevelopment Commission on Feb. 22 to hand over a list of specific properties. If money became available, they’d like the county to help buy, clean up or demolish those properties and sell them to new owners — preferably people who would live there.

Perhaps new housing could go on that land, or a new business, team members suggested.

They also unveiled a map of a possible economic development area, which spans all of “downtown” Helmsburg and beyond.

Just because a property may be shown in the economic development area, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be purchased, Steele stressed. Everything would be voluntary; even her own house is on it.

The area marked on the map is where a public sewer is available or could be extended, said Dave Redding, president of the redevelopment commission.

And anywhere sewer is available — as well as water, adequate highway access and high-speed internet — is a good candidate for possible development, he said.

Helmsburg has all of those things, which much of the rest of Brown County doesn’t, Steele said.

“We might have an opportunity for not just acquiring existing properties and flipping them, but also to have a developer come in and do something,” Redding said.

The proposed Helmsburg economic development area (boundaries in blue).
The proposed Helmsburg economic development area (boundaries in blue).
Helmsburg EDA graphic
Another view of the proposed Helmsburg economic development area (boundaries in pink).

Parents, landlords, decades-long residents and new business owners attended the February meeting of the Helmsburg Leadership Team.

It’s a group that’s been meeting with county officials since October, gathering data and opinions on abandoned properties, commercial properties for sale, properties likely to be sold at tax or sheriff’s sales, watershed issues, zoning, crime, available utilities, potential acreage for development, the rich history of Helmsburg and residents’ vision for its future.

The county redevelopment commission has about $400,000 in the bank which hasn’t been promised to any county project. It came from the county’s sale of the For Bare Feet sock factory, which used to be one of the county’s biggest employers and Helmsburg’s biggest sewer district customer until a fire forced the company out.

Helmsburg residents have asked if some of that money could be put back into Helmsburg.

Redevelopment commission members haven’t committed to anything yet but have been open to talking about any and all possibilities. And they want, specifically, for Helmsburg residents and business owners to lead the discussion and the vision.

Bill Packer lives next door to Brown County Community Church, Helmsburg’s central gathering spot where the meeting was taking place. He said he missed the Helmsburg Festival with its street fair and car show.

Steele said they can make that happen again, but first, Helmsburg needs to be cleaned up.

Webb said Helmsburg could be a perfect place for work-from-home businesspeople who don’t want to live in a city. He could see condos being built there and jobs in information technology. “You’re on a highway, 10 minutes from a university town, but you’re in the middle of the woods in a town,” he said.

Former postmistress Harrietta Weddle remembered a dress shop that used to do pretty well. She and Steele remembered when the Fig Tree used to sell coffee and host live music performances, and people would come from all over to sit and listen.

Finding buyers for vacant commercial properties, like the Fig Tree building and the old broom factory next to it, is a task they also asked the redevelopment commission to help with — at least by listing them on the new Brown County redevelopment website.

Some sales have already happened or are in the works — such as Webb’s purchase of a vacant house that topped the “buy and fix up” list. Three vacant commercial properties near the center of town are also being bought by local people, Steele said.

Redevelopment commission member Jim Schultz said there seems to be “a higher energy” in Helmsburg since community meetings began and properties have begun to change hands, and that’s a gradual movement that can attract more people.

Anything beyond the county buying a few specific “problem properties” would have to be driven by a master plan for Helmsburg, Redding said.

The county redevelopment commission is trying to get a grant to develop a master plan for the whole county. But to specifically “sell” Helmsburg to a developer — whether that’s a person who would open a business, or build one house, or build a housing development or condos, or even buy the whole town — they recommend that Helmsburg residents consider making their own community plan as well.

The map the Helmsburg leadership group gave to the redevelopment commission is a step in that direction. Once the economic development area is approved by the Brown County Area Plan Commission and the county commissioners, the redevelopment commission can investigate what funding streams are available, member Tim Clark said.

Redding said no other unincorporated community in Brown County is taking the steps that Helmsburg is taking to direct its future, but much more work remains to be done.

“You have done a tremendous job in stepping up and saying, ‘This is what we want to do,’” he said.

“If you tell us what you want to be … we’re prepared to go get some people and tell you how to do it.”

Next steps

  • The Helmsburg Leadership Team will continue to meet to develop a plan for how to improve the community. The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 29 at the Brown County Community Church in Helmsburg. All are welcome.
  • The Brown County Redevelopment Commission plans to list vacant commercial properties in Helmsburg on its website, choosebrowncounty.com.
  • The redevelopment commission also will work through the steps of getting the Helmsburg economic development area approved (shown on map). This is a potential area in which the county could help buy, fix up and develop properties. Any purchase of any property would be voluntary, leadership team member Cindy Steele said. The economic development area has to go through a formal public hearing process and be approved by the Brown County Area Plan Commission and Brown County Commissioners before it can be acted upon.
Author photo
Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.