By Bobby Tanzilo & Jeff Sherman Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 25, 2014 at 11:03 AM

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.

BT: Is there an interest on that spot of doing something in terms of hotels to support the convention centers? That seems to be the complaint about the conventions, that they don't have enough adjacent hotels.

TB: I think we're open to that, but we're certainly open to other things, as well. We want to have activity there. We think that will help Wisconsin Avenue. One of the things we did several years ago – I think one of these simplistic things – we were frustrated with empty store windows, so we just said, put stuff in there, so some really basic stuff, make it pleasing to walk past the building, but we still have the challenge, clearly, of the (Shops of Grand Avenue) mall, and the bank that controls it now.

I think it's going to be important for them to understand what their asset is, and I think a lot of times, these are done through syndicated deals or they get it from someone, and they don't know the territory. You've got to know the territory.

BT: Do you think they don't know...

TB: I don't know. I honestly don't know. I loved it two years ago, maybe it was last year now, when we had all those pop-up businesses. I thought this was great because it brought life to it. There's always the lunchtime traffic, but it just made it whole again. I understand were they to make it long-term, it didn't make sense, but for me, I would think even for marketing purposes, it's a lot easier to market something. They don't have to know what the lease arrangements are for everybody that's in the mall.

JS: Back to the Park East a bit. What will that parcel of land, and the city and county play in the new arena discussion and maybe the expansion of the convention center discussion?

TB: I think the convention center discussion, the natural place would be north of the current Wisconsin Center, so I don't know that it would necessarily be part of that. The arena? I think that there are still many unanswered questions about this. I'm committed to the Bucks, I'm committed to Downtown, committed to Downtown entertainment.

I had a conversation with the mayor of Allentown, Penn. That's the city where the group worked to build the hockey arena not long ago and entertainment center, and there was legislation in Pennsylvania that allowed them to do this, that allowed them to capture the incremental revenue that came from income tax and sales tax and tobacco tax and things like that. I think there's some looking at that model somewhat, but I maintain this cannot be a City of Milwaukee, or even Milwaukee County-only financing mechanism.

BT: Can we talk about MPS? What do you think is Dr. Thorton's legacy as he leaves?

TB: I think he did a good job. Let's go back in time. If you remember 2009, that's when I was arguing for mayoral control of the schools. The argument I was making was a fiscal argument. The district was headed toward a cliff at 90 miles an hour if you looked at the long-term. It was just out of control. We had the McKinsey Report that had a lot of recommendations. Many of those recommendations were implemented by the superintendent and the board. I think his legacy is that he got the fiscal house in order.

BT: And he did that in a challenging time.

TB: At an extremely challenging time. I'm not surprised he left. I think his heart was always on the East Coast.

BT: From the moment he got here, people were always asking when he was leaving.

TB: Exactly, but I think he did well by Milwaukee in the way he did, fiscally. I think there still are educational challenges and a lot of those challenges are directly related to poverty and to transient students, because they live in families that are transient, but I think he also recognized that you had to understand that this was not the system that was going to remain constant. In other words, you would have more charter schools, that that was inevitable.

His goal was to make some Milwaukee Public Schools charter schools, and he felt very strongly that he didn't have market share, and I think the reason was that he was looking at the numbers and as the numbers are going down, it gets to a point where, if you don't have a sufficient market share, how do you those long-term costs, so he understand that and I think that's important.

BT: So do you think what he's done fiscally has changed what we could expect from his replacement?

TB: We don't know that. I would say he also felt – this is just my gut and my speculation – he got what he could out of the board. What I mean by that is, he had a honeymoon period, and I think he needed to realize they were going to be much more involved in a lot of the work that he thought was superintendent work, and so why get in that battle, and so there's different governance model in Baltimore.

BT: Right. It's a mayoral-appointed board.

TB: Mayoral and gubernatorial. It's a shared board. I think that that's attractive to him. I think a the end of the day, it's where he started, so this can't be a shocker. If he would have taken a job in Spokane, Wash., then I'd be asking him, why are you doing that?

BT: Do you see this as a moment when you might revisit the idea of mayoral control?

TB: No. Here's the problem I have with it right now. I still support that model, very much so. I've always felt that (to) the mayor of a large city that education is integrally involved in the future of the city, and that the mayor has to be a big part of that. When I broached this in 2009 there was not a single Republican elected official who supported it. Not one. I don't know that that's changed. And at that time you had Gov. Doyle, who I felt was committed to the Milwaukee Public Schools.

I don't feel the same way right now. I don't know that you have a governor and legislature that are committed to the Milwaukee Public Schools. I think that their agenda is much more choice-driven and would not mind seeing fewer resources going to the public schools.

So I've always said, choice schools are here, they're not going to go away, get over it. I've fought vigorously and will continue to fight vigorously to deal with the funding flaw, which is still there.

I don't know how closely you follow this, but in the expansion of the choice program statewide, for every other new community that comes in, the funding flaw that I've been complaining about for years now, they took away. I had a couple mayors who called me and said, "what do you think?" And these are people who don't share my philosophical view.

I said, "I don't know where you come down on the choice/public school debate, but from a taxpayer standpoint, you cannot allow them to come in and have this be a loser for you, with the funding," and so what they did with the legislation is for any new community that comes in, there is no funding flaw ... and they said, "OK, Milwaukee, yours will disappear in 12 years," and I don't even know that it'll happen.

BT: And (the legislature's) SB 318 about the buildings?

TB: This is an area where I have people from all parts of the spectrum criticizing me, but I'm going to continue to speak out, for example on the sale of buildings.

We want our buildings to be for the highest and best use. Sometimes it's going to be for schools. Sometimes it's going to be for senior housing. I don't know if you're familiar with Jackie Robinson.

BT: Yes, I have been there.

TB: We're going to look at what they want to do, and the legislation's still pending, for two years you can't sell it to anybody but an educational facility. And why? What if we decide something else works?

So I'm not disappearing from this at all, is my point, and I want to be very involved in the selection, I'm going to say what I think. Whether I'm asked to or not, I think it is important the mayor and the superintendent have a good working relationship. The superintendent and I did develop a good working relationship because I think someone who sits in that chair understands how important it is to have a good working relationship with the city.

BT: Did you see Willie Hines' resignation coming? Did that surprise you?

TB: No.

BT: You expected it?

TB: He's been there since 1996. I think that he's been in that position (council president) for almost 10 years, and I think he's got kids that are getting close to college age, he's got a junior and a freshman in high school, and he's always struck me as someone didn't want to stay in that position forever.

When he told me about it, which was several months before the announcement, it made sense, because he talked about the challenges the housing authority has. He lived in public housing at one time as a young person and he really has a passion for that, and so it made sense to me.

I had a very good relationship with him. I had mixed emotions to see him go, because we worked very well together. I work well with (new council president) Mike (Murphy), as well. Hopefully we'll continue that. He's amazingly fresh for someone who's been there for 24 years.

JS: Regarding the street car and transportation, haven’t some arena financial packages included transit improvements?

TB: I think Sacramento was more parking revenue on that. I'd have to check on that. I talked to Kevin Johnson, the mayor, who pulled a rabbit out of his hat. (We) talked about it several times. What he did Sacramento, and I believe the lesson there, as much as anything, if you look at the Forbes (value for NBA franchises) and they had us (Bucks) at the bottom below Sacramento, and then look at what the Seattle group is offering Sacramento, it's more than $60 million.

So, I think if Sen. Kohl wanted to walk with our money, he could. But, he's been so clear that he loves the Bucks and he loves Milwaukee and he loves Wisconsin, that those have been his priorities (to keep team and arena here).

BT: What do you think about Uber?

TB: I can tell you what my nephew and other young people said. "We like Uber."

BT: Do you think it will survive here? Will the challenges to it be too strong?

TB: I think it will come here. I do think so. Again, I think the (Common) Council may try to keep it out for now, but if young people are demanding it, and that seems to be where the demand is, at some point, they're going to have to reach it. Right now, things are so much in flux with the taxis, we'll have to see how that plays itself out.

BT: Do the applications for those 100 extra taxi licenses suggest that that's not enough?

TB: I don't know. The market's going to in part decide this. I think they're thinking, it's only one and I've got the one, but it's going to be 100. Let's face it, in the summertime, it's going to be one market, and on New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day night, it's another market, and when we have weather like we had last month, it's a different market.

BT: Beyond the appeal, what's going on with the residency discussion?

TB: Here's the thing that has not been reported on that. Some of the provisions of Act 10 have not been applied in Milwaukee, specifically those dealing with the payment toward the pensions. The reason for that is the global pension settlement, which was reached before I become mayor, and the city attorney's opinion, which I tried to fight, quite honestly, and there were two separate outside decisions, that said, "no, the state can't require this for existing employees."

We had negotiated it for people hired after 2009, in 2009 before all this hubbub, we knew there was an issue there so we got it negotiated for new employees. So 2009, people have been paying toward that, so we get the residency at the state level, and obviously I want to keep it, but I can see, I'm up against it. So I said, okay, you've got these guys who want to move out of the city. Why don't we just say, if you pay toward your pension, you can move out of the city?

BT: Is that legal?

TB: We could certainly make it legal. You could certainly do that. The leadership in Madison said "no," which for all of the chest-beating they did about making public employees pay, they were not interested in making Milwaukee police and fire pay, and put it more succinctly. My reaction to that, you've got someone who's worked for the city and, I do hear this,. they say, our property taxes are to high, and I'm thinking, "who do you think pays your property taxes? Who pays your salary?"

So my question to them is, let me make sure I understand this, "you don't want to pay toward your pension through your payroll, and now you don't want to pay toward your pension through your property tax. Who do you think is paying your pension?"

And so the hypocrisy of it is overwhelming. That the leadership in Madison beats their chest about how they made these public employees pay, except the members of these unions who supported them. So that gets my Irish up a little bit.

JS: What's one word you would use to describe your relationship with the governor?

TB: Professional.

JS: Do you watch "House of Cards"?

TB: I don't, but I will.

JS: I love it, and love to talk to politicians locally that have seen it.

TB: Our TV in the basement no longer works as a TV. Because of cable television and stuff like that. So I have to get my exercise and I had never used the Nordic Track, (because) I'd run outside. Once I had my incident in December they said, "don't go exercising outside, under 20 (degrees) or over 80." This is the line. I need something to watch, so my kids brought me, my daughter brought me "The Office." So I'm watching all "The Office" episodes right now. "House of Cards" is coming up. I'll get to that.

I have mellowed on this. When Netflix first came out and we had it, I actually canceled it, because I looked a the pattern and see that my kids would binge watch. ... Too much TV.

BT: Who has the best fish fry in Milwaukee?

TB: St. Sebastian's grade school! Come on!

BT: And this keeps coming up over and over. People ask all the time, complain all the time, saying they want "The Calling" on Wisconsin Avenue moved. Do you like "The Calling?"

TB: I think it's certainly a part of Milwaukee. It doesn't mean it will always be a part of Milwaukee. It just doesn't. I don't think you can say that for anything. Change is inevitable. The one constant is everything changing.

Bobby Tanzilo & Jeff Sherman Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.