Businesses sound off in streetcar debate

On the eve of the next Common Council action on the controversial $124 million downtown Milwaukee streetcar project, business and civic leaders are sounding off on both sides of the debate.

A group of nine of Milwaukee’s most prominent business and civic leaders, in a letter sent today to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council, expressed support for the proposed streetcar project.

However, petitions are circulating at several Milwaukee businesses in an attempt to stop the project.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce has not taken a stand on the issue, an acknowledgement that there is no clear consensus in the business community on the streetcar proposal.

The Common Council is scheduled to vote on a funding plan for the streetcar at its meeting on Wednesday. However, opponents of the project could use a parliamentary procedure maneuver to put off the final action on the project until Feb. 10.

The business and civic leaders who are expressing support for the project in today’s letter to Barrett and the Common Council include: Marquette Electronics (later known as Marquette Medical Systems) founder and philanthropist Michael Cudahy, Stark Investments managing director Linda Gorens-Levey, Schlitz Park developer Gary Grunau, ManpowerGroup executive chairman Jeffrey Joerres, Lubar & Co. president and CEO David Lubar, Mandel Group president Barry Mandel, Marcus Corp. president and CEO Greg Marcus, Johnson Controls CEO Alex Molinaroli and Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan partner Greg Wesley.

“The streetcar is a critical component of a strong vision for the future, connecting major downtown buildings, parking structures, educational institutions and future development sites with a modern, comfortable, fixed-route and very reliable transit connection that has proven highly successful in other cities both larger and smaller than Milwaukee,” the group’s letter says. “Now is the time for action. We have $5 billion in current and proposed development downtown – an unparalleled opportunity for our community. The streetcar will help connect these new developments and provide momentum for the next wave of economic development and job creation. We support more jobs, more business growth, more construction and more benefits for the whole city. The streetcar is a smart investment that will pay for itself many times over.”

Other business and civic leaders that have also sent letters or emails to the mayor or the Common Council supporting the streetcar project include: Kubala Washatko Architects co-founder Tom Kubala, Lowlands Group owner Eric Wagner, Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District CEO Beth Weirick, Milwaukee Art Museum director Daniel Keegan, Discovery World president and CEO Joel Brennan, Hennessy Group Inc. president John Hennessy, Historic Third Ward Association executive director Nancy O’Keefe, Westown Association Business Improvement District executive director Stacie Callies, Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin executive director William Johnson, WAM DC LLC president Stephen Chernof, co-founder Jeff Sherman, Midwest BikeShare Inc. executive director Kevin Hardman and board president Bruce Keyes, Menomonee Valley Partners executive director Corey Zetts and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts president and CEO Paul Mathews.

Opposition to the streetcar project is led by Ald. Robert Donovan and Ald. Joe Davis, who are leading a petition drive in a attempt to pass direct legislation that would require any rail project in Milwaukee that costs more than $20 million to be subject to approval by voters in a referendum.

Several Milwaukee businesses have made the petitions available for streetcar opponents to sign. According to the Stop the Milwaukee Streetcar Facebook page, those businesses include: Sobelmans Pub and Grill, The Packing House Restaurant, Sherman Perk Coffee Shop, McBob’s, Wolski’s Tavern, McKiernan’s Irish Tavern, Roast Coffee Company, Mama’s Italian Cuisines, Ron & Russ’s Flooring  & Design, Sebring Garage LLC and CJ’s Sports Bar.

The initial streetcar route would run from the Intermodal Station, at 433 W. St. Paul Ave., northeast through the Historic Third Ward, downtown and ending at Ogden and Farwell avenues on the Lower East Side. The initial route plans also includes a spur to the proposed Couture project at the lakefront. The cost to build the streetcar system would be paid for with $64.9 million in federal funds and $59 million from tax incremental financing districts. The total $123.9 million cost includes an estimated $22.7 million in utility relocation costs, which must be borne by the city. Construction on the project could begin this year and the streetcar could be operational in 2018.

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