Downtown Milwaukee jumps high for GE Med jobs
Bidding war pits city against suburbs
By Steve Jagler, of SBT
Downtown Milwaukee is now in the stretch run of a perfect trifecta that would place a crowning jewel on Mayor John Norquist’s final year in office.
Earlier this year, Roundy’s Inc. decided it will move its headquarters and 500 jobs from Pewaukee to downtown Milwaukee at the new 875 E. Wisconsin Ave. building.
That decision was quickly followed by Bank One’s announcement it will move 750 jobs from Menomonee Falls to its downtown Milwaukee building at the southwest corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Water Street.
And now for the third leg of the trifecta — 1,500 jobs in a $50 million, 300,000-square-foot office building sought by Waukesha-based GE Medical Systems Information Technologies.
GE Medical continues to shop around southeastern Wisconsin for the perfect home for that building and those jobs.
The firm’s ongoing shopping tour has pitted downtown Milwaukee against the suburbs in a familiar bidding war to be the company’s suitor.
The City of Milwaukee has made its best economic offer to the firm, said Bill Zaferos, special assistant to the commissioner of city development.
"We’ve had questions come back to us (from the company), but nothing that would indicate they’re any closer to a decision," Zaferos said.
Zaferos and other city officials remain confident that downtown has a fair chance to land the new jobs, primarily because they believe the young professionals who will occupy those high-tech jobs tend to prefer diverse urban settings.
"Young people like an urban environment. They don’t like to be stuck out in a cornfield, where you’ve got to drive three miles to eat lunch," Zaferos said. "It’s also great to have a Milwaukee address."
According to real estate sources, the main sites being considered for the GE Medical facility are:
— The proposed Ovation Plaza office building, which would be developed at the site of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts parking garage along Water Street north of State Street in downtown Milwaukee. Irgens Development Partners LLC continues to look for an anchor tenant, which would be needed before the $100 million, 22-story building could be constructed.
— A downtown Milwaukee site along West Cherry Street near the Milwaukee River. The site is owned by Milwaukee developer Gary Grunau.
— The Milwaukee County Research Park near Highway 45 in Wauwatosa.
— A Brookfield site near the intersection of Bluemound and Calhoun roads owned by V.K. Development Corp.
— Another Brookfield site near Bluemound and Calhoun owned by Ruby Realty.
— The Heritage Reserve office complex being expanded along Good Hope Road in Menomonee Falls by Strong Capital Management Inc.
— The Pabst Farms site being developed in Oconomowoc by Pabst Farms Development LLC and its president, Peter Bell.
GE Medical spokesman Patrick Jarvis, who will soon be leaving his position for a promotion to a position in General Electric’s transportation division in Erie, Pa., said the company has received several proposals and continues to weigh its options.
"We’ve made progress. However, we have not come down to a final cut yet," Jarvis said. "I would expect we would have a decision in the not-so-distant future."
The company is committed to keep the jobs in southeastern Wisconsin, Jarvis said.
Like their Milwaukee counterparts, Waukesha County officials remain optimistic they’ll land the GE Medical project.
"I think each has put their best foot forward," said Bill Mitchell, president of the Waukesha County Economic Development Corp. "I think, if it’s measured by prestige, it would be a loss for whichever county doesn’t get it. I would be disappointed, but I don’t think it would be a fatal blow to the county. What is important is that we keep them in the region."
Dan Ertl, Brookfield city planner, is hopeful that V.K. Development or Ruby Realty can land the new GE Medical complex.
"We are highly supportive of their efforts to secure an agreement," Ertl said. "A fair representation is that both owners are highly optimistic the sites will be selected."
After losing both the Roundy’s headquarters and the Bank One office — a combined job loss of 1,250 — Mitchell acknowledged that Waukesha County has some bruised egos.
"I think it’s fair to say, to have two back-to-back announcements like that caught us flat-footed. What I’m a little disappointed in is the knee-jerk reaction on the part of some organizations or people that say it’s a pattern," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he disagreed with the notion that the trend of large employers migrating from the large city to the suburbs has reversed.
Roundy’s decided to leave Lake Country for downtown Milwaukee because the company’s leadership team from Chicago simply preferred a more urban setting, while Bank One chose to move to Milwaukee because the company owned its downtown building and did not want to continue leasing in Menomonee Falls, Mitchell said.
Steven Palec, the Polacheck Co. broker who is representing GE Medical in its site search, said he could not comment on anything regarding his client’s intentions or plans.
However, Palec said he is very bullish on the downtown Milwaukee office, retail and residential markets, in general. Palec noted how quickly the 875 E. Wisconsin Ave. office building filled up with tenants and the demand for condominium and office space in the $52 million Cathedral Place structure being constructed at 545 E. Wells St.
"One of the things I’ve been doing is talking to a lot of lenders from other cities that are taking notice how quickly we filled up two new buildings in downtown Milwaukee," said Palec, who also hosts a Sunday morning radio show devoted to rock ‘n’ roll classics on 96.5 WKLH-FM.
"I find myself sitting here as I’m looking out my window at the Calatrava (addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum), and we in Milwaukee are so self-effacing. We have a real story here, and about the only thing we have to apologize for is getting Elton John for Harley," Palec said.
Oct. 3, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee