August 20, 2010


Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Cheryl Nenn, was recently published in a Journal-Sentinel op-ed about UWM’s plans to build an engineering campus on the County Grounds, an 89 acre natural area in Wauwatosa.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper believes that UWM’s recent effort to get a $12 million TIF district contribution from Wauwatosa taxpayers is a bad gamble on development that may never happen, and that there are far better places to develop than a natural area that is filled with wildlife and used by many for recreation.

More information can be found below.

[excerpted from the Journal-Sentinel]

by Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper

In an Aug. 15 Journal Sentinel editorial headlined “UWM needs help to cross the finish line,” the region was urged to get behind UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago’s plans to build Wisconsin’s second major, state-supported research campus and to advance the university’s research goals, which are important for our region that has been “battered by job loss and economic malaise.”

The editorial went on to urge Wauwatosa to expedite a proposed $12 million tax incremental financing district for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s proposed engineering campus on the Milwaukee County Grounds as well as to urge support for the university’s Schools of Freshwater Sciences and Public Health.

UWM should be congratulated for its efforts to bring in research funding, develop new technologies, and create jobs in the region. Likewise, Santiago should be commended for having a bold vision for revitalizing UWM. However, we do not feel that building the engineering campus at the County Grounds is in the best interest of UWM students, the community, or the environment.

In the Aug. 17 article “High-profile plans started,” chemistry professor David Petering stated that focusing on development away from UWM’s main campus would amount to a distraction of the university’s mission and hurt efforts to increase partnerships among professors from different departments on the main campus. Likewise, the engineering campus is geared toward graduate students, who likely will have to shuttle between campuses, losing time and money. Efforts to fund-raise for this campus mean fewer resources expended for improving the main campus.

In fact, the UWM Real Estate Foundation still has not purchased the 89-acre property from Milwaukee County, missing two deadlines to buy the land. The UW Board of Regents has not approved this campus nor has allocated funding for it, while authorizing several rounds of funding for the Schools of Freshwater Sciences and Public Health. The university has spread itself thin, and the engineering campus seems low on the list of priorities for the Board of Regents.

Its primary supporter, Santiago, has announced that he is leaving UWM. That leaves the private UWM Real Estate Foundation as the sole promoter for this project, besides Milwaukee County and Wauwatosa, which stand to make money from the land sale and new tax base increase, respectively.

In addition to the $13.5 million needed to purchase the property, funding is needed for the development of facilities on the property. There does not appear to be either public or private funding for such development. The university has applied for a $5 million federal Economic Development Administration grant to fund a Business Accelerator Facility and is counting on a $12 million TIF district contribution from Wauwatosa taxpayers as a match.

The taxpayer-funded TIF would be used to fund infrastructure development (e.g. roads, sewers, utilities, landscaping) on the County Grounds, most of which would be flipped by the UWM Real Estate Foundation to private developers for condo/apartment development as well as for retail and private research park development. In fact, the engineering campus seems to be a misnomer, as only a very small portion of the 89 acres site will be used for education. Since when did our university and cities gamble our taxpayer dollars on high-risk real estate speculation?

At a public hearing on Aug. 9th in Wauwatosa, the university made it clear that approval of the TIF is necessary to successfully attract private developers and research partners to the site. This requires a huge leap of faith for Wauwatosa to pony up funds for a “if we build it, they will come” business park. Thus, paradise will be paved, roads and sewers built, wildlife habitat degraded and fingers crossed that the economy picks up and developers will be interested in the site. While there is a possibility of success, there is also a possibility of a lose-lose situation, where we lose a high-quality natural and recreational area prized by local residents to build infrastructure for development that doesn’t materialize.

Let’s state the obvious: The economy is awful, and private development has largely stagnated. The TIF feasibility study claims that the $12 million taxpayer investment will be repaid within 27 years, which is the maximum amount allowed by law. In order to ensure that we don’t turn an asset into a community liability and eyesore, it’s imperative that Wauwatosa take its time to get this TIF decision right. This can be done by not approving the TIF or, at least, by exacting strict phasing plans for the development of the site as well as timelines for repaying taxpayers and benchmarks for when funds will be disbursed.

TIF districts are usually used to help spur the development of urban blighted areas and can be powerful tools for revitalizing our cities. However, using taxpayer funds to spur speculative private development of a high-quality natural area used by wildlife and people alike seems a highly inappropriate use of a TIF.

It also seems needless as there are still approximately 20 acres vacant in the research park across the street from the proposed site as well as a Technology Innovation Center that is also largely underutilized and which was built to spur partnerships between universities and the private sector. What is the real demand for space for local research facilities? Will creation of the engineering campus really help us combat our job loss and economic malaise? How will the County Grounds location attract businesses that don’t want to go across the street to the research park?

Natural areas continue to be needlessly destroyed by this chicken-and-egg approach to development, where cities put in infrastructure and services via TIFs to attract private development that often doesn’t materialize.

As currently proposed, Wauwatosa should reject the TIF for the UWM Innovation Park. Last, but not least, if UWM decides to move forward with an engineering campus, we urge it to re-evaluate blighted areas for locating this campus.