Beyond Vision plans to relocate to former Sam’s Club building in West Allis

Non-profit provides employment to blind workers

Beyond Vision's planned Ability Center in West Allis. (Rendering: Bray Architects)

Beyond Vision intends to purchase the former Sam’s Club building at 1540 S. 108th St. in West Allis, where it plans to relocate its operations and set up an Ability Center that would include other organizations serving the blind.

Beyond Vision’s planned Ability Center in West Allis. (Rendering: Bray Architects)

The non-profit social enterprise provides employment to people who are visually impaired and blind. It was recently selected as the winning bidder to buy the Sam’s Club location by parent company, Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart Stores Inc.

Beyond Vision hires workers in multiple business units, including assembly and packaging, a full-service call center, a CNC machining shop and business products distribution. The business-products unit distributes business, break room and janitorial supplies commercially and at federal installations.

The organization said it’s interested in relocating because it has outgrown its current space in two state-owned buildings on Milwaukee’s west side, at 5316 W. State St., and there is no longer room to expand there. Additionally, its current buildings were built in the 1930s and have no fire protection, sprinkler system or loading docks.

What’s more, the new Beyond Vision location in West Allis would also aim to serve as a one-stop location for services for the blind, said Jim Kerlin, president and chief executive officer. Services could include eye-health practitioners, advocacy groups, education and braille translation resources.

“To access the currently fragmented services needed for a person who is blind who also relies on public transportation can be daunting,” Kerlin said. “Therefore it is also our intention to invite any organization serving the blind to co-locate.”

Kerlin said he has looked for an appropriate spot to relocate Beyond Vision for the last three years or so. A key reason the Sam’s Club building was chosen, he said, is because it is near stops for two major bus routes. Many of Beyond Vision’s employees rely on public transit to get to and from work. It is also centrally located in the greater Milwaukee area.

He added the idea of the Ability Center “will serve as a model nationally for other organizations serving the blind.”

The West Allis Sam’s Club was one of 63 locations across the U.S. that closed last year. The company said at the time that it had decided to close this and other locations, including one in Madison, after a thorough performance review.

According to county records, Sam’s Club in 2017 paid roughly $288,700 in property taxes, which included nearly $114,900 to the city. The property is assessed at $10.21 million.

Beyond Vision, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, is exempt from paying property taxes. This would mean the city and other governments would lose out on the tax revenue the property was generating when operated as a Sam’s Club.

Acknowledging this, Beyond Vision has offered to pay the city as well as the school district the amount each would normally receive if the property were owned and operated by a for-profit enterprise.

The offer would be formalized through a payment in lieu of taxes agreement. City officials mulled the idea earlier this week, but have not yet agreed to the offer.

John Stibal, director of development with West Allis, said the topic will be brought up again at a later meeting. What officials will have to decide is whether they would agree to a PILOT agreement that allows the non-profit to pay less than 100% of the taxes that would normally be collected on the property.

Beyond Vision’s offer equates to paying only about 72% of the total property taxes, said Stibal, because it leaves out the portions that would go to Milwaukee County, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District and Milwaukee Area Technical College. What’s more, the value of the property would be frozen, meaning the local property taxes would not change year to year.

This offer would go against a policy the city adopted just last year that would require in any PILOT agreement that 100% of all property taxes be paid. Stibal said that policy was adopted because other nearby communities carried that requirement, while West Allis previously asked that only the city portion be included.

“They just began the discussion of, if they were to consider a PILOT agreement, what it must say,” Stibal said of the talks so far.

Adding to this is the fact the property, currently zoned for commercial uses, would need to be rezoned to allow for manufacturing operations to take place there.

Kerlin said his group offered to enter into a PILOT agreement with the city because it wants to be a “good corporate citizen,” and recognizes it would be relying on city services such as the police and fire departments if it were to set up shop there.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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