Tara Topel, pictured in the center of the front row, poses with Topel’s Service Center, Inc. and Topel’s Towing & Repair, Inc. staff and representatives from the City of Lake Mills, financial institution Bank Five Nine, and general contractor Friede & Associates for an Oct. 15 re-groundbreaking at 1110 S. Main St. Construction on the new buildings for the automotive company was supposed to be started in October 2020 and completed within seven to eight months. However, several set backs resulted in pushing the start date of construction back by one year.

Roughly one year ago, Tara Topel was anticipating the construction of the new facility for Topel’s Service Center, Inc. and Topel’s Towing & Repair, Inc. The original garage, built in 1948, was going to be razed to make room for a new office building and a structure for repair bays. The construction at 1110 S. Main St. was anticipated to take seven to eight months.

“It seemed like a pretty safe bet,” she said.

Then, the delays began. Topel, the owner of the business, said the first snafu came in mid-October of 2020, when her husband, Dan, was on a hunting trip and construction was set to get underway. She received a phone call from the general contractor who explained the property appraisal came in much lower than it should have.

Topel said in most circumstances, the business would have requested the appraiser get another appraisal for the property to reflect the correction. Unfortunately, the appraiser was not willing to change the value of the site.

“It was extremely low and completely wrong,” she said.

With the incorrect appraisal, the financing for the project fell through.

Topel was able to get another financing through another bank but was told it would take at least a month to get an appraisal completed. A second bank told the business owner it could complete an appraisal in two weeks, “but that didn’t happen,” she said.

The Lake Mills business began to have challenges getting a bank to finance the project.

“We jumped through many, many hoops,” Topel said. “Honestly, what I think it came down to, was people just didn’t know what the economy was going to do. If it wasn’t something totally sure, they weren’t going to take the risk.”

The business owner worked with the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Small Business Development Center, which assisted with conducting market research studies.

While Topel was trying to secure financing, she also began looking at the small business association (SBA) loans being offered through the national CARES Act. As part of the program, many of the fees associated with loans were removed and 90% of the loan was guaranteed. The business was able to secure financing using the SBA loan with a bank in January.

Topel hoped securing the financial backing would get the construction project to move forward after a three-month delay. However, there were more delays to come.

“I think part of it was there was more red tape involved in getting the SBA loan for the bank, but I think another part of it was resources and people,” the business owner said, noting there may have been fewer staff to process the loans due to COVID-19. “We tried to be really patient and understanding with that.”

Since many businesses were taking advantage of the SBA loans, the processing queues were quite extensive, Topel said. Additionally, each loan application had to be inspected by three people before it could be approved.

By the time the application was processed and accepted by a financial institution, it was Sept. 22 – 11 months after the initial construction date.

“Once we had the commitment letter, we were confident things were going to go,” Topel said. “We just didn’t think it would take that long.”

While the business was waiting for the loan to be processed, the general contractor would be in contact with Topel to let her know how much the cost of materials was increasing and none of the bids were able to be locked in until late September. Once the financing was secured the cost of the project increased by $200,000.

Earlier this month, there was a re-groundbreaking for the project. The business owner said the project is, again, expected to take seven to eight months to complete. But Topel is realistic about the challenges the construction industry is facing, such as shortages due to shipping issues. She is hopeful the office building and service station will be completed in 2022.

“The delays are inevitable.”

An emotional toll

The multiple challenges of securing the financing took a toll on Topel. When out in the community, people would ask why the construction had not started.

“I didn’t go out in public that much because every time I went somewhere, everyone would ask (about the new construction),” she said. “In the beginning it was fine… eventually I just had trouble talking about it because it was frustrating to go through this and have the financing fall through.”

Additionally, there were days Topel chose to work from home because she knew it would be a struggle to be optimistic at work.

Topel did say another challenge was the false rumors about the city being responsible for holding up the project.

“In fact, the City of Lake Mills leadership and Council provided valuable support to us the entire time and allowed us to make this project a reality with TIF funds and assisting us with the WEDC Grant,” she said.

Not everything during the process has been negative; there have been a few bright spots during the past year. For instance, the building on Enterprise Drive Topel’s is temporarily housed in allowed for five hoists and more office space than the previous location.

Even the pandemic provided a silver lining. With more people working from home the business was able to get customers who normally would get their vehicle serviced in the community where they work.

“We’d let them know we could pick up their car (from their home for free) and drop it off, so they could keep working,” Topel said. “It was an opportunity for us.”

The business owner is grateful for the continued support the community has offered Topel’s Service Center, Inc. and is looking forward to the completion of the new building.

“Now that things are going forward, everyone here has a bit more spring in their step,” Topel said.

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