Rob Lewis

Rob Lewis stands in front of the former Rock Bottom Tavern along the Rock River in Jefferson. Lewis has made an offer to the City of Jefferson to purchase the property to be developed into a winery and restaurant.

The former Rock Bottom Tavern and Restaurant in Jefferson is slated to be redeveloped into a winery and restaurant, named Stable Rock Winery, targeted to open to the public in late spring or early summer of 2020.

The Jefferson Common Council on Tuesday unanimously accepted a commercial offer to purchase the property, located along the Rock River at 123 W. Milwaukee St., from Burkard Lewis Properties LLC for $130,000. The closing date is to be no later than Nov. 1.

In addition, the council unanimously authorized the sale of the property, which is registered as an historical building on both the state and national Registers of Historic Places.

The buyer, Rob Lewis — who, along with his wife, Michelle, own and operate Lewis Station Winery in downtown Lake Mills — plans to start operating a micro-winery on the premises within two years of closing and, per the offer, agrees to perform a minimum of $130,000 worth of improvements to the property.

The offer to purchase is contingent upon the city acquiring the property from current owner Joe Tate no later than one day before closing with the buyer. The city then would sell the property to Lewis the same day on a two-year land contract.

City Administrator Tim Freitag said the city has been discussing the fate of the property during a couple of meetings.

“It’s a fairly historic property in the City of Jefferson,” Freitag said. “The property is on the state and national Register of Historic Places. It is the old livery building for the Jefferson House Hotel and dates back well into the 1800s.”

The property, he said, has sat vacant for several years.

“It’s in a condition that requires a fairly significant investment to save the building,” Freitag added. “And, quite honestly, when we first started talking about it, we looked at the prospect of having to raze the structure and then, potentially, redeveloping the site for parking that would support activities down on the riverfront.”

But since that time, he said, the city received an extremely viable reuse of the building proposal with a party (Lewis) interested in acquiring it from the city, assuming it is closed on.

Appearing before the council on Tuesday, Lewis shared his plans for redevelopment of the property at 123 W. Milwaukee St.

“I’m the winemaker and owner of Lewis Station Winery in downtown Lake Mills,” Lewis said, noting that about 10 years ago, he and his wife decided to open a wine shop with the intent of eventually buying and starting a winery. “I gave the (Lake Mills City Council) a passionate story about how I can drive tourism into downtown Lake Mills because, at that time, there were a lot of vacancies in Lake Mills, as well.”

He said his idea was to start what’s called an urban winery that could do more than just produce wines, but also become a tourist destination featuring food and entertainment to be enjoyed year-round.

“In the state, there are more wineries that are out in the countryside, where you would typically find wineries with vineyards, and that sort of thing,” Lewis explained. “Because of that, a lot of wineries are closed in the winter.”

It was his passion then for an urban winery, he said, that pushed his untested project forward.

“Nine years later, I’m happy to be able to tell you that of all the wineries here in the state, we (Lewis Station Winery) are probably in the top 10 percent for wine production, as well as tourism,” Lewis pointed out. “And downtown Lake Mills is full.”

Looking at the Jefferson location for a new winery, he said, the potential is huge.

“When the opportunity came to look at the building that you have at the riverfront, I’m probably as excited, if not more excited (than starting the Lake Mills winery),” Lewis said. “The redevelopment that I hear from the city council and residents with the restructuring of the downtown riverfront — I knew that I had to be part of that.”

Considering the building’s past, the buyer said he wanted to incorporate that history and allow the building to “thrive.”

“And that’s where the name Stable Rock Winery came from,” Lewis explained. “Stable is when it was (a livery) built in the late-1800s; Rock, obviously, next to Rock River, and Winery is kind of self-explanatory for what I do.”

He said he intends to start working on the building’s exterior immediately after closing on the property.

“We would redo the brick and the foundation repair that it desperately needs,” Lewis explained. “We will remove the paint and expose the natural beauty of the Cream City brick without painting it.”

The roof will be replaced, he noted, along with new gutters installed.

“The lack of gutters on the building is causing damage every time it rains,” Lewis said. “So, the idea would be to kind of button-up the outside of the building this year so that this winter I would have confidence knowing the building is safe on the outside, which would allow me to have more fun on the inside.”

The interior, he said, is where the production facility would be added.

“We would replace all the boarded windows that cover 90 percent of the windows and replace them with actual windows so you can actually see the beautiful Rock River,” Lewis said. “On the main level is where we would prepare the interior for the tasting room. The lower level, or basement, would be used for an event venue.”

The winery owner said he is not sure yet what to do with the expansive upper level to which there currently is no access.

“The main floor is where we will do tours, tastings, offer our wines by the glass, (serve) meals and retail shopping, etc.,” Lewis said. “The lower level would be a rental space for meetings, parties, live music, live theater, shows and wine education — available for the community to rent.”

Exterior improvements also will involve removing the existing deck and replacing it with new composite deck, he said, as well as adding a roof using historic-looking beams to create a rustic feel to the building.

“The three- to five-year plan for the exterior would be to add a balcony to the side of the building that faces the river so that people could walk off the retail floor and maybe sit outside and enjoy a meal and a glass of wine or a bottle of German beer and enjoy the river,” Lewis told the council.

The timeline, ideally, he said, calls for the winery to open in about nine months — “at least the main floor for shopping, and the tasting and the retail.”

Hours of operation would be Wednesday through Saturday, from noon to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

The winery owner said he has no interest, however, in operating a bar.

“This is more of a destination — it is more of a nice place for local residents to come and enjoy maybe some German food and some wine or a German beer,” Lewis stated. “But, certainly, tourism is huge in Wisconsin.”

The winery’s theme will showcase the history of the building, as well as some of the city’s German heritage.

“The interior will show the history of the building with almost like a museum feel to it,” Lewis said. “So you would see history of the building and photos, and pretty much anything I can get my hands on and nailed to the wall would be the idea.”

Drink offerings, he said, would include German wines and hard ciders.

“Ciders and some of the wines would be produced onsite,” Lewis said. “As I mentioned, we will be building a production facility there.

“We also would offer craft beers and German beers, and we have a pretty extensive menu of wines over at Lewis Station Winery,” he added. “So I would pull probably half the menu and re-label them, and move them here (Jefferson) which would immediately bring tourism — at least traffic — to downtown because they’re all very good sellers.”

The food offerings, Lewis said, will consist of German small-plate foods, along with traditional winery plates featuring cheeses and meats.

He said the marketing approach will involve utilizing billboards, highway tourism signs, social media and tourism websites.

“We anticipate 20,000 visitors in the first year — I’m not overestimating that,” Lewis said. “Right now, we enjoy 50,000-plus in downtown Lake Mills.”

Initially, he said, he expects to employ two or three persons on staff from existing employees who live in Jefferson. A bit later, three or four employees on the retail floor might be added as tourism grows, along with additional kitchen staff as the menu is developed.

The winery owner said he has passion for the project and the experience to back it up.

“When I was talking to Lake Mills (city officials), it was untested,” Lewis said of his urban winery. “At least now I know I have nine years of experience, and I’ve already taken the bumps and bruises. I’m sure I’ll still have a few, but I’ll make smarter decisions earlier and we’ll see the success quicker.”

Of the proposed project, Alderman Ron Miller remarked: “I think that’s a great use of the building that was months from being torn down.”

Another alderman added, “It’ll be a great addition to the neighborhood!”

Mayor Dale Oppermann, meanwhile, said there has been some, but generally little, interest in acquiring and repurposing the historic property.

“Rob (Lewis) is the person who has the vision and the passion and the wherewithal to take on a project like this. I think that’s what we were waiting for,” he said. “And this is an opportunity for both the City of Jefferson, and for Rob and Michelle, to expand their business here and really create a positive addition to downtown Jefferson.”

City attorney Chris Rodgers said this offer is contingent upon Burkard Lewis Properties securing from the City of Jefferson a conditional-use permit for future activity the buyer intends to use the property. He said the buyer also must secure a building permit for any improvements to be done to the property.

Acquisition of the property is within the city’s Tax Incremental Financing District (TID) No. 5. Therefore, the TID No. 5 fund will reimburse the city’s general fund for any funds advanced to purchase the property from future TID 5 revenues including the proceeds of the general obligation bonds issued.

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