Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:25 pm
Folaron takes business-like approach in race for mayor
Private-sector experience is just what the city needs, businesswoman says
Sandy Folaron has never held elected office and lacks political experience. However, the West Vliet Street businesswoman believes her outsider status will be an asset in her run to succeed a career politician as Milwaukee’s mayor.
"I view the city as a business — a business that needs management," Folaron said. "And I bring my management skills to the table."
While some candidates talk about redevelopment in the inner city, Folaron has been on the front lines of the redevelopment effort. Folaron, with her husband, John, purchased and renovated commercial properties on Vliet Street, including the Times Cinema, Milwaukee Coffee Company and the Schmidt-Bartelt funeral home.
Although Folaron has not been on the city payroll, she has worked with the city through her involvement with independent business organizations, including the West End Vliet Street Business Association, the Vliet Street Commons Art Project, the Washington Heights Neighborhood Association, the North Avenue Business Association, United Neighborhoods, LLC, and the Mayor’s Crime Commission 2000.
Folaron recently discussed her mayoral candidacy with Small Business Times reporter Charles Rathmann. The following are excerpts from that interview.
SBT: Describe what went into your decision to run for mayor.
Folaron: My frustration with the lack of development in city neighborhoods. I really felt our successes here on Vliet Street could be replicated other places. But when I looked at the candidates that had announced at the time I entered the race, I just didn’t see the leadership among that group or on the common council. Because of my background in city development, I felt I would be a good alternative in this politician-based race.
SBT: Where do you see Milwaukee’s current stature among American cities?
Folaron: As I travel around the country, I have found that people all know about Milwaukee. They know we have this lake and this fabulous museum. But I want to take it to the next level. Some people complain that Milwaukee is seen as nothing but beer and brats and want to change that perception. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Go ask Deb Usinger what she thinks about that. Beer and brats — that is what we are about. People come from all over for our festivals. We are already known nationally, but now we need to up the ante.
SBT: The city of Milwaukee has lost population over the last several decades. There has been some return to the city due to downtown residential development, but that development is not family-oriented. Tell me your thoughts on why Milwaukee continued to lose population for so many years and what you would do to restore a higher census count.
Folaron: I certainly think that families with school-aged children have left the city because of schools. There has been a lot of dissatisfaction. Whether it is schools, crime or the perception of crime — all of these are factors that drive people away. But property taxes are also an issue. We are getting to a point where elderly people cannot afford to stay in their homes. They are almost penalized for not joining that western migration.
SBT: Many children struggle in Milwaukee Public Schools for a variety of reasons. While the school district is a separate political entity, what would you do about the educational system in the city? And how does school choice fit into your picture?
Folaron: I like school choice and think it is a good option for parents. Specialty, charter — there are good and bad things with both programs. There is almost a movement nationwide to stop public schools. I am against it. I went to public schools and private schools. The school system is not governed by the mayor, but the mayor should be a proponent, a cheerleader. In this last administration, the mayor did get involved politically, working to change the makeup of the school board.
There are some people who support dissolving the school board and having the superintendent of schools answerable to the mayor. It is bad for a superintendent to deal with the politics of reporting to a board. I personally would support this, but I don’t know if the city is ready for it.
SBT: There has been an incredible amount of investment in the city under the Norquist administration. Downtown has seen much of that, but other areas of the city have benefited also. But the central city seems to be continually left out of the picture. Yes, there are pockets of reinvestment, but there is still tremendous blight. How would you describe the situation?
Folaron: It is a war zone. I walk in that neighborhood, and there are blocks and blocks of houses that are either boarded up or falling down. The results of community groups like CDCs (community development corporations) have been less than spectacular.
I am a firm believer in strategic plans for each neighborhood, with checks and balances for development. Things currently are subject to the competitive process of community block grants, and that causes community groups to be not allies but enemies. A strategic plan guiding redevelopment would identify where a neighborhood would be in five years.
I think in many cases it needs to start with in-fill housing. Housing is what neighborhoods are all about.
We also need to do a better job of providing city services to the inner city. If you go to different parts of the city, you won’t see trash lying around at the curb, while in others, you do. It is not because of the tenants there – it is because the stuff fell off the garbage truck and they didn’t bother to pick it up. We have neighborhoods without curbs. The curbs have worn away and have not been replaced as the soil just washes into the gutter.
SBT: While Milwaukee has a strong and ingrained socialist culture, Mayor Norquist describes himself as a supporter of market forces in business development. What do you see as the role of government in business and economic development? How far should the city go in promoting and financing business development? Aside from financial support, what can the city do to make it easier for market forces to effectively foster development in Milwaukee?
Folaron: I agree that the city should not be government-driven. We need to understand what small businesses need to thrive in this environment. And we could give a leg up to big business – just enough to entice them to come here, but not giving them free land and thanking them for the privilege.
The city needs to understand that small-business people don’t want city hall holding their hand and telling them how to run their businesses. There are little things that help — façade grants, low-interest loans from MEDC (Milwaukee Economic Development Corp.). Here on Vliet Street, we have a volunteer-based association, with no CDBG money. Because when you take block grant money, you also allow the city to take credit for what you are doing. … Vision does not come from the mayor’s office. It comes from small businesses on the street.
SBT: It looks as though Milwaukee’s budget will be severely impacted by the state’s budget crisis. What are your plans to deal with fewer dollars coming into the city? Would you be willing to forego a political future by making unpopular but necessary budget decisions for the city?
Folaron: I would have to. The next mayor is not going to be one of our most popular. The $10 million deficit the mayor is basing his budget on is scary. People are going to feel the impact. My perspective is that it is going to be a management issue. How long has it been since various departments have been audited? How productive are our departments? People have a tendency not to look at themselves critically. You have to look at the management.
I would go on record as saying property taxes have to be brought down. We still need to retain our police and firefighting personnel.
SBT: Tell me about the neighborhood you live in and why you live there.
Folaron: We live in Washington Heights and moved here just about 20 years ago when other people were involved in that western migration. There were 45 houses on the market in this neighborhood alone. We bought one of the Davidson mansions, the industrialist homes built by the Harley-Davidson executives.
We met most of our neighbors in the first week. That is why I think this neighborhood is special. It is so community-centered. We have a 500-member neighborhood association that doesn’t take any block grant money. Most small-business owners on Vliet Street live in the neighborhood. It is ideal. I can be downtown in five minutes and anywhere in the city in 10 minutes. It is walkable and has the most fabulously diverse housing stock.
SBT: Earlier this year, Small Business Times polled the owners of businesses within the city of Milwaukee, regarding their perceptions of business conditions here as those perceptions relate to the mayoral race. The top three issues they cited for the new mayor to tackle were taxes, transportation and infrastructure and crime. Your thoughts on those issues.
Folaron: I agree with those priorities but would put them in a different order. Property taxes have to come down. Crime — I would rate second because crime eats into your potential for economic development. Transportation would be next because public transportation is key in bringing together different parts of the city. Light rail I think would be great, but the cost is just not economically feasible right now. The Metra, now that it is coming, I am hoping it could be extended through the Menomonee Valley to Miller Park. Get people into those neighborhoods further west.
Infrastructure — I consider that a separate issue, and it scares me. It needs to be addressed. It is something people can’t see — the sewers — but the cost will be enormous.
SBT: That poll and a poll conducted by the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors raised the integrity issue. Will you stand up to the test of high integrity?
Folaron: I am not a big horn blower. I don’t blow my own horn. But I’ve been married for 31 years. My heritage is Polish, and Polish people don’t back down on their word. I was raised in Southlawn (a south side public housing project), and in Bay View and even in Southlawn, we had a sense of being proud of who you are, your appearance and your integrity.
SBT: Milwaukee has a long tradition of multi-term mayors. Do you see the mayor’s position as a long-time job for you?
Folaron: I think it takes a while to get things done with city government. I hope I am showing the progress people want to see when the first term is completed. To actually accomplish some of what I would like to would that take eight years or 12 years? I don’t know, but I do know it cannot be done in four years. But I am not the type that will need to be carried out of her office. I know when it is time to go.
Aug. 8, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee