New Stonebridge apartments in Merrill one month out from opening

MERRILL - The third-floor light switches work. So do the air conditioners. And the appliances are brand-new, just as Howard Othmer expected.

"I feel confident walking away from this building when it's done," Othmer said. "Very, very well built."

Tuesday morning, the Horizon Construction Group general superintendent walked through Merrill's newest low-income housing project, which rises three stories above Main Street along the banks of the Prairie River.

Othmer's crews are about three weeks away from finishing the 38-unit building. He estimates the third floor is about 99 percent finished. Work still needs to be done on the elevators, mechanical elements, and basic items such as trim, but plans are on track.

"We'll be good, we'll hit it, no problem," Othmer said.

His Madison-based company started construction at the corner of Main Street and Grand Avenue this winter, battling through heavy snow in March and April and a couple supply shortages.

Later this week, he'll go over a first round of inspections with the building's owners to make sure the apartments are done just right. The building offers views of downtown Merrill, the river and Stange's Park, and includes features such as a common room with a central fireplace, full-service salon, and plenty of green space to come out back.

"I'm excited to get through the first one because then I know what to expect," Othmer said with a laugh. "It's easy then."

Easy is exactly how the Merrill Area Housing Authority wanted to make it for people moving in to Stonebridge from the low-income Park Place apartments across the street. Thirty-two people from Park Place won a pool to get a new unit. The six two-bedroom units will go to other people who have applied for low-income, elderly, or handicapped-accessible housing.

"The demand is there for affordable housing, there's no arguing against that," Executive Director Paul Russell said.

Russell has seen more than 130 applications for low-income housing this year alone. He says Stonebridge's upcoming grand opening will offer more space in other housing authority units, while allowing the MAHA to start the second phase of its project: renovating Park Place. The 1970s-era building will be gutted and redone. Stonebridge, meanwhile, will have energy-efficient appliances and better heating and cooling systems.

"[Park Place has] a ton of inefficiencies that have either us spending more money than we should or the tenants or WHEDA (the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority) or a combination of the three."

A combination of the Merrill Area Housing Authority (which contributed about 30 percent of the costs), state, and federal Housing and Urban Development funds paid for the $16 million project, despite no contributions from the city of Merrill itself.

"It kept a lot of small businesses and contractors in the Merrill-area busy," Russell said. "We touched Wausau, Rhinelander, I mean [most of] northcentral Wisconsin."

A team effort of state and local companies combining their handiwork to soon offer people in Merrill a hand up.

"This is probably the most close-knit network of a community I've ever been in," Othmer said.

The housing authority will hold a ribbon cutting and open house on Friday, September 7. Russell expects the Stonebridge building to last for at least 50 years.

By: Lane Kimble