Milwaukee Talks: Mayor Tom Barrett, 2014
In the wake of Mayor Tom Barrett's State of the City speech at the end of February, OnMilwaukee.com's Bobby Tanzilo and Jeff Sherman sat down with Barrett to dig deeper into some issues facing Milwaukee.
In the OnMilwaukee.com offices, with a view out to City Hall, Barrett – who previously served in the State Assembly and Senate and spent 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming mayor in 2004 – talked about Park East development, MPS, residency rules and more.
Enjoy this latest installment of Milwaukee Talks. And when you're done, take a walk down memory lane here with a 2008 interview with Barrett.
Jeff Sherman: What's been your biggest success as mayor so far?
Tom Barrett: I would say there's a couple things that jump out at me. One, if you take a look at the Menomonee Valley, I'm extremely pleased at the progress we're made there. When I came in, I was told, OK, we can do this, and the budget was $20 million, because that's what they decided the budget was. We ended up spending a lot more than that, when you count all funds. But it was an investment that was so transformative for the valley and has literally opened it up. That's one thing I'm very proud of.
The work is continuing to be very successful at The Brewery, so that's another one. The work we've done on teen pregnancy – we've seen a 50 percent drop in teen pregnancy – I think is really, really important.
We've had a decrease in crime, although last year we had an increase in homicide, but that's – we're still bullish on that. Very pleased with the reduction in fire deaths.
On the flip side, the biggest challenges are still the poverty, and then in some neighborhoods, the crime. But it's interesting on the crime, because the homicide review commission just came out with its analysis, and one of the things that jumped out at me for last year was for homicide victims, on average, the victims had more arrests than the suspects.
So when people talk about safety in the city, what we've seen is, you should be concerned about safety in the city if you're a member of a gang, if you deal in drugs, if you carry an illegal gun and if you've been arrested before. Those are the factors. If you're not in a gang, if you don't traffic drugs, if you don't carry an illegal gun, if you haven't been arrested before, then the safety figures are very good.
JS: Water technology has evolved as a strong economic niche for the city, but moving forward, how do we keep an eye on changing economics, changing job patterns, changing economics and really continue to reposition Milwaukee as a leader and innovator?
TB: I think it's a couple things that we are doing and more things that we need to do. I think the water technology has been a good success story. It was a private sector initiative. We had some private business leaders who said, "Hey, we should be doing this." The city has partnered with them, the state has partnered with them, but the leadership has come from the private sector, which I think is very healthy, I like that.
But if you look at the work we're doing at the Reed Street Yards, you can see that we're invested in it, literally, in trying to provide not only the infrastructure there to support it, but a place to grow, and I describe that as leading with our strong suit. Of course we should be doing that.
What's so amazing about the whole Water Council and the Fresh Coast and all that stuff is, you didn't have to make it up. Sometimes a city is like, what are we going to do? It was sitting there and we just had to bring it together. Now we have to continue to bring it together. Looking forward, we have to remain a place where young people want to come, and I can honestly say as someone who's lived here my whole life, I have never seen the energy level among young people higher than it is now in the City of Milwaukee, so I think that bodes extremely well.
Bobby Tanzilo: What do you think accounts for that?
TB: I have some strange theories. For example, with Downtown housing: I think nationally there's a little bit of a trend there, but I think that you can't escape the reality that the students are coming out of school, they have more debt, and so they may not be looking to purchase a home, they may not be looking to purchase a car, because they've got all this student debt, so all of a sudden, (they are) renting and there's a momentum factor; you get enough of a critical mass of young people, then more young people want to be there (here) as well, and I think we've reached that.
BT: Does the cost of living also play into that?
TB: I think it does, but again it's two factors. Young people like to be near other young people, and if you look at the housing we have downtown, 2/3 of it is under 35. (When) I graduated from college in '76, graduated from law school in '80, nobody was living Downtown. There was the Cudahy Towers. Nobody was Downtown.
And we're going to see more of that. You can see, for example, the discussion on the Germania Building, which was home of my congressional office. We're still hopeful for some of the buildings along Wisconsin Avenue, moving west to Marquette. It's interesting because we think Marquette is sort of a western anchor for this. It fills in pretty nicely. I think that's going to continue to grow.
BT: Do you see a movement to the north?
TB: I think Brewers Hill may have reached its critical mass. What we're really fortunate (about) in Milwaukee is that we haven't had the racial gentrification issues they've had in other cities. I would say that's the only place – and I wouldn't say it's a major factor there – but nationally what's happened is you're had white families who lived close to Downtown and they moved out and people of color moved in or lower income people, and then people want to move back. A lot of our gentrification took place in the Third Ward. It's good and bad.
And in Walker's Point. The good news is there were no people there, and so there was never this issue of displacing people. I would prefer to have more of those businesses stay in the city, yeah, but a lot of them were warehouses anyway, so it wasn't as though there were a lot of people working there, and so clearly that continues to be one of the hot areas of the city.
Then you go south, Kinnickinnic (Avenue) is really on fire; that whole area is really, really hot. So there's really a lot, I think, of people that want to have that urban life experience.
BT: Do you see a way to overcome the sort of Park East problem west of the river, on county land? Is there any discussion between the city and the county?
TB: Yeah, and we're very close to marketing it together. So much of this is, the forgotten fact is – and this is my self-serving statement here – most of the land is county land. There was a section that was city-owned, and ... we just sold our land, just like that. What happened was, with the county, for so many years, and there was a hotel at one point – (Kimpton) Palomar Hotel – that was going to go in there, and that sort of displays the frustration that I had with the way things were going. The developer, the owner of the Palomar came from Texas. Nice guy. Said, "We're not asking for any money from the city." Great. Nice change.
Then he went to the county and the county set the price, and after the price was set, he came back to us and said, "It's more expensive than I thought, now we're going to need money from the city," and it was just a non-starter, because ... 4th and Wisconsin is an example. In the past, the approach has been, you need help, here you can have the land, that's the first thing that we would do, then if you needed something more, we would negotiate it.
When we're dealing with the Park East, the county's philosophy was, "We have to get as much money as we can out of this land," and it happened more than once. You'd have developers who'd agree to pay what the county was selling it for, then they'd come to the city and say we need help.
BT: So they want the city to pay the county ...
TB: You can see why it was a non-starter with us. It was just, "no." And we have a lot of money in that TIF – the infrastructure – so it's not like we're just this innocent bystander or someone who doesn't care about it, but no, we already put our money in, and we still have a lot of money for that TIF to pay itself off. It just didn't make any economic sense to the city whatsoever.
BT: But it's changing?
TB: It's changing. I think we've let the county executive know, it just doesn't work for us to do that. You can't have this be your cookie jar and have us be the ones that are putting the cookies in.
BT: 4th and Wisconsin?
TB: I talked about it in my State of the City speech. We're got this group that's looking at West Wisconsin (Avenue). Steve Chernof is heading this effort. I wanted it to come from outside City Hall – nothing against City Hall – but I wanted a fresh set of eyes from the outside. We had a great couple-day working session, and there's a few things that are percolating right now on that, and we want to have that continue to move forward. We're going to have – I don't know if competition is the right word – but we're asking people from the community come forth with ideas for what to do with that corner.
It's right across from the Boston Store, and we've talked a lot about the Boston Store because we want to make sure the Boston Store and the Bon-Ton headquarters stays there, so we've extended the TIF arrangement for $300,000 a year there, and I think it's a winning proposition. What most people don't realize is how many jobs are there.
BT: People think of the store, they don't think of the corporate headquarters.
TB: Exactly. And the payroll is $50-60 million there, so my philosophy on the TIFs has always been, how many jobs are we talking about, and are we talking family-supporting jobs? So there's an example of, yep, we're talking about literally hundreds of jobs, and they're family-supporting jobs.
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