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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011

Why Hasn’t Milwaukee County Sold Its Park East Land?

The county executive candidates explain how they’d develop it

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After the Park East Freeway was razed to free up property for development, the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County came into possession of separate parcels of land on the site.

However, only the land owned by the city has been sold. Although some developers had shown interest in the past in the county-owned parcels—and still show interest—the county hasn’t been able to close a deal on any of its land.

The candidates for Milwaukee County executive took on this issue in last week’s debate at Marquette University. The candidates are Chris Abele, Ieshuh Griffin, Acting Milwaukee County Executive Lee Holloway, state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) and former state Sen. Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa).

(Full disclosure: The Shepherd Express and the nonprofit corporation that the Shepherd had created to operate the former Milwaukee International Film Festival are suing Abele, Milwaukee Film Inc. and two of its employees for misappropriation of confidential information, misappropriation of good will, unjust enrichment, computer crimes, theft and damages arising from conspiracy to injure businesses. For a complete copy of the complaint filed in the Milwaukee County courts, go to milwaukeefilmfest.info.)

Here are the candidates’ responses:

Abele:
I think if we let the fact that we don’t have potential development that is a 100% home run prevent us from doing anything, we’re going to sit empty for a really long time. I think the very first thing that I do is understand—because there have been opportunities for us to do development—is to understand who we’re competing with, and what exactly are the benchmarks, what is being offered and what is making this a yes for businesses in other cities and a no here? And how do we change that? And how do we change it quickly? And, again, I don’t think it’s sufficient merely to say, “Hey, we’re going to create conditions” and just wait for an opportunity to stroll by. I think we have to create the conditions. We have to target companies. We have to go out and market [it]. And if the county executive and the mayor go together on the same trip, it sends an awfully big message.

Griffin:
A simple answer is because of mismanagement. There is over $300 million of capital assets that are just sitting there because of mismanagement and in need of infrastructure repair. I think that to solve the problem you have to look at the root of the problem, going back to why the former county executive and the current acting county executive have yet to do anything about it. You have to also look at the budget and the fiscal policies and what have you to correct the problems that are occurring. Unfortunately I’m not sitting in the seat right now that the acting county executive is sitting in, so I don’t know the numbers. But I will personally go in and actually assess the situation. But due to mismanagement we have that and a number of structures that are just sitting.

Holloway:
As recently as Wednesday I met with the MSOE president and I am supporting them putting in a parking lot and soccer field there, which would create a lot of economic [activity]. It would allow 500 cars to be parked. That would stimulate other businesses to move there. I think it’s a fine opportunity to start.

You have to look at it from the perspective of the economy. That’s why some people were initially against the MSOE deal, because they thought that it was not business-oriented enough. But I think it is and I think it will stimulate the economy. And that’s all that we have on the table, because we have not had anyone giving us any interest that they have any plans.

No one has brought things to us. Some of the deals that we did failed. Some of the people who indicated that they wanted to do business, they pulled away when the economy soured. There were a number of hotels and apartment complexes that we brought to the table, but what happened was the economy. They pulled out.

Sullivan:
I think you cannot divorce this from the leadership relationship that goes on within the Milwaukee County structure. When you have this loggerheads—either between county leadership under [Scott] Walker or city leadership under [Tom] Barrett or between the county executive’s office and the county board—it was because, for ideological reasons, things were not getting done. One thing that I can say to Scott Walker’s credit is that he came in eight years ago as a change agent. Nonetheless, you can only go so far as the change agent, as though you’re going to come in and push things around and shake things up. I think what we need now is leadership that’s going to work cooperatively, leadership that has that relationship and ability to work with a legislative body—the legislative bodies in Madison and the county board here and the city council—and the experience at the state level and at the local level in order to get the job done.

Stone:
That was an area that I was involved in when we took down the Park East… I supported that—because I wanted to see those assets [developed]. They were being way underutilized and we needed to work together to get to a solution. We got it done. We got the freeway cleared. … It’s not about credit. It’s about having policies that actually allow economics to function. What we’ve done and what we’ve seen in the county, we’ve piled on requirements above and beyond what the market requires or will allow. So the property sits there, unused, underutilized, wasting an opportunity for our taxpayers and the people who want jobs and to work in this community. I will work with anybody. But you can’t continue to create regulations that don’t allow for the development or investment in this community.
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