In the end, it took two villages, one insurance company, one bureaucratic state agency and rare bipartisan cooperation to raise a freeway interchange.
Although the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is finally ready to go ahead and build a new Interstate 94 interchange at Drexel Avenue in Oak Creek, the path that sealed the deal was fraught with detours, stop signs and lane changes.
The DOT had insisted that the local communities come up with half of the $12.8 million needed for the project.
The Oak Creek City Council agreed to fork over $4.35 million, and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., which wants the interchange to serve its sprawling nearby campus on South 27th Street in Franklin, had already agreed to provide $1.6 million.
That left the remaining portion of the local share – and the fate of the interchange – up to Franklin. The Franklin City Council finally agreed with a 4-3 vote to provide $500,000 in funding for improvements on nearby South 27th Street, which the DOT will count as contributing to the Drexel Avenue project in Oak Creek.
Ultimately, the deal was a bipartisan political feat, the kind rarely seen anymore in an era of political divisiveness. State Reps. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) and Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) worked together with State Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) to nurture and push through a project that will serve the common good.
The project is of particular significance for Honadel, who grew up playing and working in his parents’ nearby apple orchard that has since become a subdivision of condominiums.
Hats off to Honadel, Stone and Plale for putting aside their political parties’ agendas to take care of the people’s business.
The Drexel Avenue interchange will certainly be a catalyst for economic development on the south side of Milwaukee County.
Not only will it put into motion commercial development of land Northwestern owns surrounding its Franklin campus, but the interchange also instantly raises the bar for the development options at the vacant Delphi plant site in Oak Creek.
Oak Creek should aim high for the Delphi site. The city’s main drag, South Howell Avenue, is nothing more than a neon strip of generic retail. With some creative vision, the Delphi site could be a game-changer for the city.
Ideally, the Delphi site could become the home for another corporate campus, perhaps an investment company that does business with Northwestern Mutual? Or even another manufacturer looking to build a new plant with freeway access in Milwaukee County – one that would provide hundreds of family-supporting jobs?
If not, Oak Creek should hold out and create something that will be a destination. Something unique.
Oak Creek should not settle for another big-box store with yet another asphalt parking lot. If that’s the only option, the city would be better served turning the site into an apple orchard.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.