At a forum about downtown Milwaukee this morning, Democrat Tom Barrett and Republican Scott Walker expressed different visions for the region’s mass transit options, but found common ground in supporting the former Pabst Brewery as the site of the proposed University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Public Health.
The 20-acre former Pabst brewery site was purchased by Zilber Ltd. founder Joseph Zilber, who worked to redevelop it into a mixed-use urban neighborhood. Zilber passed away recently, and his company is working to complete the redevelopment project. Zilber also contributed $10 million to help establish the UWM School of Public Health, on the condition that it be located somewhere downtown. He had worked to have the school occupy space at the former Pabst brewery.
“I know one of (Zilber’s) dreams was to have the School of Public Health at that site,” Barrett said at a forum this morning on the state of downtown Milwaukee conducted by the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District at The Wisconsin Club. “That should be a priority of the next governor to make sure that happens.”
Walker agreed and said The Brewery project has “tremendous” potential.
“I too want to see the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Public Health there,” Walker said.
Barrett, Walker and former Congressman Mark Neumann are running to be the next governor of Wisconsin.
Neumann said the location of the UWM School of Public Health should be determined by university and local officials, not the governor’s office.
"I think the role of the governor is to stay out of the way and let the school and the neighborhood make the decision," he said.
In their remarks this morning, Barrett and Walker avoided taking shots at each other and focused their comments on the current condition of downtown Milwaukee and what they think should be done to improve that area.
“I think (the state of downtown Milwaukee) is good, but I think we have an opportunity to be great in the future,” Walker said.
Walker called on the Milwaukee County Board to repeal the community benefits requirements that the board adopted several years ago for development of county-owned land in the Park East corridor. So far, none of the properties owned by the county where the Park East freeway spur once stood have attracted any development, but some privately owned properties and a property formerly owned by the city around the corridor have attracted development.
Walker pointed out that he vetoed the community benefits requirements for the development of county owned land in the Park East corridor, but his veto was overridden by the County Board.
“Anytime you put addition hurdles, additional barriers up you reduce the opportunity for development to occur,” Walker said. “I’m sorry to say that has largely played out (in the Park East corridor). At a time when it’s so incredibly challenging, particularly for commercial development, we need to focus on removing every barrier.”
“The Park East remains an opportunity,” Barrett said. “We continue to work with the county in hopes it will develop some of its land.”
The event also highlighted the candidates’ different views on mass transit. Beth Nicols, the executive director for the Downtown Milwaukee BID, said that improving transportation systems is a top priority of the CEOs of downtown businesses.
Barrett talked about his plans for a downtown streetcar system, a project that has been criticized by Walker.
“I can’t think of a major American city that is growing that does not have rail as part of its transportation system,” Barrett said. “The purpose (of the streetcar) is to tie downtown together.”
The streetcar will provide a key connection for people arriving at the Intermodal Station in downtown Milwaukee on high-speed rail trains to get to their final downtown destination, Barrett said.
Walker also has criticized the Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail project.
Walker says Milwaukee should focus mass transit efforts on improving the county bus system and he touted his proposal for a bus rapid transit line from Wauwatosa through downtown Milwaukee to the UWM campus. A bus rapid transit line would provide a “clean and efficient bus system,” Walker said, “at a much higher speed, a much more rapid pace.”
Barrett also said that the city is working to improve the roads in downtown with replacement or repair projects to bridges on Wisconsin Avenue, Clybourn Street and Juneau Avenue.
Both Barrett and Walker mentioned goals for downtown Milwaukee without offering specific solutions.
Barrett acknowledged that the Bradley Center is a “challenge.” The Bradley Center was built in 1988, and Bradley Center officials say its most important tenant, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, need either major improvements to the building or a new arena to generate enough revenue to remain in Milwaukee for the long term.
“We know the Bradley Center is a challenge,” Barrett said. “I think we also recognize there are limited public resources. We recognize the Bradley Center is important.”
Barrett made no suggestions about how to address the Bucks’ arena needs.
Meanwhile, Walker said downtown Milwaukee needs more hotel rooms to help attract more conventions, although he provided no plans on how to attract more hotel development.
Barrett and Walker also used the forum to highlight different attributes that are strengths of downtown Milwaukee.
Walker said the county’s award-winning parks system, especially the lakefront parks, is a major part of downtown Milwaukee’s appeal. He also said that the Milwaukee Public Museum is a major attraction for downtown Milwaukee and said county officials worked to turn around the museum’s financial problems.
“We’re proud to say that we have put a world-class museum back on a world-class map,” Walker said.
Barrett said two of downtown Milwaukee’s most important assets for long-term growth are institutions of higher education, including Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering, and its location along Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River.
“People love to work near water, live near water and play near water,” Barrett said, calling Lake Michigan Milwaukee’s “strongest asset as a community.”
Andrew Weiland is managing editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.