Commentary: Strauss fiasco shows lack of leadership

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It is an interesting time in Milwaukee as the upcoming Democratic National Convention will bring massive national and international attention to the city. Can Milwaukee leverage that publicity to help solve its problems and attract more economic development?

Hopefully yes, but Milwaukee leaders all too often fumble opportunities.

The latest example is the shocking collapse of plans for Strauss Brands to move its headquarters and meat processing operation from Franklin to the Century City Business Park.

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Alderman Khalif Rainey
Alderman Khalif Rainey

When activists raised concerns about the operation, calling it a “slaughterhouse,” Ald. Khalif Rainey, who represents the area, was dismissive and said the project would bring critical job opportunities to the neighborhood. He was right.

But then, three days later, Rainey flipped his position to opposing the Strauss Brands plans, which would have brought at least 250 jobs to Century City. A few days later, Strauss Brands pulled out.

What happened? Resident opposition grew surprisingly quickly. In part, according to a report by Urban Milwaukee, because of criticism from radio talk show host Michelle Bryant, who is also a legislative aide for state Sen. Lena Taylor, who is running for mayor.

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Mayor Tom Barrett blamed Taylor and her camp for killing the project. Taylor blamed Barrett for not informing the community about it.

The proposal was going through the normal approval process of committee meetings and public hearings, Barrett says. Still, his administration appeared caught off guard by the fast-rising opposition and didn’t respond fast enough with a counter-message.

Before making up their minds, aldermen should have taken a tour of the Strauss Brands plant in Franklin and asked the company how it would address concerns from neighbors. After the company backed out of the deal some aldermen expressed interest in doing that, but it was too late.

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This debacle brings back memories from 2006 when Buyseasons wanted to build a facility in the Menomonee Valley. Aldermen Robert Bauman and Robert Donovan opposed it. So Buyseasons, which today has about 100 full-time employees, went to New Berlin instead.

Then you have the aldermen who oppose developments due to silly NIMBY concerns. Tony Zielinski, who is also running for mayor, opposes a large apartment development proposed on Kinnickinnic Avenue in his district. The site has been a vacant lot for years.

Bauman also opposed a residential tower near the Goll Mansion, on the East Side, which has tons of towers. Some residents were upset the tower would block their views. The project was eventually approved, but hasn’t moved forward so the views are safe for now.

Considering how badly the city needs to attract jobs and expand its tax base, opposing these developments makes no sense.

Attracting jobs to low-income areas and economic development to boost the city’s tax base is not easy. Effective leadership is needed to capitalize, and not squander, these opportunities.

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