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Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

The Plot to Sell a Priceless View

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The problem with dismissing conspiracy theories out of hand is when they start coming true before your eyes.

Some of us have long suspected that the ultimate goal of politicians who talk up privatization would be to start selling off our most valuable public resources to the highest bidder.

Now Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is supporting a brazen plot to sell Milwaukee’s most magnificent Downtown vista to a private developer for millions of dollars. Shockingly, the outrageous proposal was not immediately met with public anger and cries of betrayal.

We’re talking about the view of Lake Michigan at the east end of Milwaukee’s main street, Wisconsin Avenue, framing the iconic Santiago Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. That movable masterpiece is becoming recognized around the world as a symbol of a soaring new spirit in Milwaukee.

The view is priceless, but Walker has put a price on it anyway. Licking his lips, Walker says selling the site could bring the county as much as $30 million based on Downtown real estate prices.

Walker’s cheerleader is County Supervisor Lynne De Bruin. With those millions of dollars dancing in her eyes, she calls the Downtown bluff of O’Donnell Park overlooking the lake and the Calatrava a perfect site for condominiums, office buildings, entertainment venues or all three.

With absolutely no public discussion, County Board Chairman Lee Holloway already has ordered county staff to draft a proposed notice to seek proposals from private developers.

Whenever a radical public policy change moves at lightning speed in Milwaukee without public debate, any good conspiracy theorist knows wealthy men in tailored suits have been meeting quietly in wood-paneled rooms to tally up their enormous profits.

The fact that Walker would back selling off the most valuable public property in Milwaukee to private developers while he is running for governor should tell voters everything they need to know about whose interests Walker would serve if elected.

Handing Over County Assets

One interpretation of Walker’s political career is that his ultimate goal has always been eliminating county government, eviscerating public services and handing over valuable county assets to wealthy profiteers.

For millionaire developers, there is no greater prize in Milwaukee County than the 15,000 acres of beautiful parkland assembled and protected over the past century. The problem was how to get Milwaukee citizens to stop appreciating the irreplaceable treasures handed down to us by generations of visionary public leaders and be willing to sell all that valuable real estate.

Enter Scott Walker and the right-wing political philosophy that the most important function of government is to cut taxes for current voters, with everything else a distant second.

If you can get citizens to accept the premise that nothing is more important than holding down their taxes, then there is no community asset worth protecting.

But how do you get people to quit caring about preserving beautiful, accessible, green space and free family recreation unparalleled in other urban areas of the country? Two words: deferred maintenance.

Although Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black has done an extraordinary job with diminishing budget resources, she has not been able to stop hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and program cuts under Walker.

Less programming and shabbier facilities mean fewer people using parks. Fewer people using parks for legitimate activities means more people using parks for illegitimate activities and less public safety. It can quickly become a downward spiral.

Still, it was unlikely the privateers would start out by trying to plunder Milwaukee’s most scenic lakefront panorama. They probably were planning to start with less conspicuous parkland to get Milwaukeeans used to the idea of selling off protected public land to cut current taxes.

The schedule to grab O’Donnell Park was moved up on June 24 when the consequences of deferring maintenance and laying off county inspectors to cut taxes came crashing down.

A 13.5-ton slab of concrete fell off the parking structure beneath O’Donnell Park, killing a 15-year-old boy and injuring two others. So far Walker has avoided any responsibility by blaming the original construction and sidestepping any independent investigation of lack of maintenance and inspections until after the gubernatorial election.

Some see every tragedy as an opportunity. Suddenly, Walker is proposing to sell Milwaukee’s most stunning lake view. His cover story is that the profits could save other parks at no cost to the taxpayers. Wanna bet?

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, instead of acting as a watchdog, editorialized in favor of destroying O’Donnell Park, saying it acted as “a Berlin Wall” between Downtown and the lakefront.

Anyone who has watched fireworks from there, picnicked over their lunch hour or just driven east down Wisconsin Avenue to have their spirits lifted by breathtaking architecture knows better.

Some aesthetic experiences should never be sold for any amount of money and certainly not for anyone’s private profit.