Milwaukee business owners cite taxes as top issue; Clarke most favorable
Taxes, transportation and infrastructure top the list of concerns for Milwaukee small-business owners as they look ahead to next year’s mayoral race. And they want the person who wins that race to be good at building relationships, a person with vision, integrity and business skills.
Those are the findings of a survey Small Business Times commissioned of business owners whose companies are located in the city of Milwaukee.
Business Development Directives, a research firm in Eagle, conducted the telephone survey. Working from a list of SBT subscribers whose businesses are in Milwaukee, researchers completed 103 telephone interviews.
The survey was not an attempt to measure how business owners would vote in next year’s elections; respondents were not included or excluded by whether or not they live in the city. Rather, it was an effort to gauge what business owners as a constituent group would want and expect from the city’s next mayor to improve the community as a place in which to operate a business.
Nearly half of the respondents indicated that a prospective mayor’s business management experience was very important.
Those surveyed also were surprisingly harsh in their judgment of Mayor John Norquist, who is not expected to run again after he completes his current four-year term next year.
Norquist, who first took office in 1988, has generally had the strong support of high-profile business leaders, but in the SBT survey, fully half of those responding gave him only a "C" grade for his performance. And while 22% gave the incumbent an "A" or "B," 29% graded the current mayor a "D" (21%) or "F" (8%).
While the poll was not limited to city dwellers – the only ones who can vote – among all of those surveyed, the mayoral candidate most preferred was Milwaukee County’s relatively new sheriff, David Clarke. Former Congressman Tom Barrett and current Ald. Tom Nardelli ran second and third in preference behind Clarke, who, like Barrett, is not a declared candidate.
When asked about their familiarity with names of people who say they will run for the mayoral post and those whose names are mentioned as potential candidates, the following responses were given, with 5 being the most familiar with the name and 1 being the least familiar: former Congressman Tom Barrett, 4.2; Alderman Tom Nardelli, 3.6; Alderman and Common Council President Marvin Pratt, 3.6; Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, 3.4; Alderman Michael D’Amato, 2.2; Milwaukee County Clerk Mark Ryan, 2.1; State Rep. Pedro Colon, 1.8; developer Randy Roth, 1.3; Municipal Judge Vince Bobot, 1.2; businesswoman Sandy Folaron, 1.1.
The tough grades for Norquist are especially striking, considering the strong support he has had from business leaders in the community. Norquist has actively courted business support through policies that include downtown development efforts, holding down property taxes and vocal support for private school choice in the Milwaukee Public School system.
Some Norquist partisans believe that the slice of business polled in the survey didn’t fairly represent the sentiments of business owners in the city as a whole. They also suggested that smaller businesses may be out of touch with the mayor’s efforts on their behalf. Critics’ responses, Norquist supporters told SBT, suggested they were unaware of many pro-business accomplishments of the administration.
Some of those polled don’t buy that argument. "I think that he’s ignored the needs of a lot of small to medium- sized businesses," said Frank Sabella of DMX Music.
Still, many business owners responding to the survey spoke highly of Norquist. "He’s done a lot of good things for the city," said Walter Dusold, owner of Artisan Wood Working.
The survey asked respondents to list the three top issues facing Milwaukee’s next mayor. Of those who responded, 48% listed taxes among the three issues, 44% listed infrastructure and 32% named crime.
Fully 50% of them listed good relationship skills among the most important attributes the next mayor should possess. The poll asked respondents to name up to five characteristics.
The four other most commonly selected characteristics were categorized as "Strength/vision" (named by 44% of respondents), "integrity" (32%), "business and financial skills" (31%) and "consensus building" (21%).
Half of those who answered said it would be "very important" for the next mayor to have business experience, and another 25% labeled business experience "important."
Despite that, the candidates most familiar to business owners have no extensive business experience. Respondents showed very little familiarity with Sandy Folaron, a west side business owner who has declared her candidacy, or Randy Roth, a developer who has been considering a run for mayor.
The candidates who scored most strongly on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing "not familiar at all" and 5 "very familiar" were Barrett, Nardelli, Ald. Marvin Pratt, Clarke and Ald. Michael D’Amato.
Poll respondents also were asked their preferences among mayoral candidates or potential candidates.
Sheriff Clarke is at the top of that list, the favorite of 24% of those polled. Barrett is No. 2, with 19%, and Nardelli No. 3, with 16%. Of the three, only Nardelli has declared his candidacy. Through a spokeswoman, Clarke declined to comment on the poll results or the prospect of his running for mayor.
Clarke "seems to be able to confront issues," said Norine Weber of Alpha Source.
Barrett’s experience as a member of Congress would make him "an excellent candidate," said Dusold, who lives in the city. Connections with Washington would be valuable in winning federal help for the city, Dusold said.
Ray Fister of 5th Floor Recording Co. said of Barrett and Clarke, "both of them are four-star."
Business owners in the survey were asked whether they expected to keep their businesses in the city in the near term, and 87% said "yes." Another 7% said "no" and 5% said they were unsure.
For the longer term, however, uncertainty grew. Sixty percent said they intended to keep their businesses in the city "in the long term," while 20% said "no" and another 20% were unsure.
Among issues that owners said "might cause" them to move their businesses out of the city, 40% cited taxes, 35% cited "general location," 20% cited incentives offered by other communities, and 15% cited "quality of life."
Respondents who spoke favorably of the Norquist administration’s contribution to businesses in the city cited several accomplishments: increased downtown development, attracting new businesses to the city, holding the line on taxes and projects such as the new 6th Street bridge.
"I think he had a vision," said Joanne Angelici of Amera-Care Transport, citing Norquist’s downtown development efforts and projects such as the Riverwalk. "He’s done some good things for the city."
Yet those respondents were in the minority in the survey. When asked about Norquist’s positive contributions to the city’s business community, more than half – 52% – were unable to cite anything to surveyors. "There’s not a lot that’s been positive," said one respondent. "Nothing. Only large corporations got any attention," said another.
Respondents who spoke unfavorably of the Norquist administration brought up a variety of issues. Some spoke unhappily of what they perceived as a failure of the city to promote itself. Others criticized the tearing down of the Park East Freeway, now under way.
Some responses indicated that the recent round of criminal charges against city aldermen might have further tainted Norquist himself, whose image already had been affected by a sex scandal.
When asked to single out ways in which the Norquist administration hindered business in their view, 33% of respondents cited transportation and infrastructure, 30% cited business development, 27% cited taxes and 21% cited "lack of leadership."
Elaborating on their responses, some complained the current administration "ignored small business" or that the city was "not attractive" for business.
Norine Carlson Weber said rising service fees were a frustration for her company, Alpha Source Inc., and as a result, "the administration doesn’t seem to have been very business friendly."
Wayne Staats of eMapping Solutions said he finds the city’s transportation sorely lacking. "The highways around here are awful, and I blame John Norquist for not attending to that."
But while some who responded criticized sharply the Norquist-led move to tear down the Park East, Staats said he himself has come around on that issue. "Initially I was against it," said Staats. "But after I’ve been thinking about it, and watching it come down, it frees up a lot of property down there. What we gain by ripping it down exceeds what we gained by leaving it up."
Some of the survey findings surprise pro-Norquist people both inside and outside City Hall.
Craig Peterson, president of the downtown public relations firm Zigman Joseph Stephenson, a Republican and a longtime Norquist supporter, told Small Business Times that the survey responses don’t square with the mayor’s record.
The criticisms suggest that the critics in the survey "don’t understand the office of mayor, nor do they have understanding how the office has functioned," Peterson said. "If they really looked at his record, and how he has reduced the size of city government, they would think, ‘This guy’s one of us.’ He could be a small businessman."
Peterson praised the current downtown revitalization and said Norquist deserves much of the credit for making it happen without heavy subsidies from the city. "Other mayors have gone into cities and thrown dollars downtown. [Norquist] doesn’t do that. The mayor has been very practical on how he has approached development."
"The Norquist Administration has reduced the size of city government by more than 750 positions at a time when the state needlessly ran up the size of its workforce," said Norquist spokesman Steve Filmanowicz. "Our budget growth has been right around the rate of inflation, which is no mean feat given the pressures caused by spiking health insurance and arbitrated salary packages."
Julie Penman, Milwaukee commissioner of city development, cited numerous Norquist administration accomplishments. Norquist spearheaded a program to provide emerging businesses greater access to capital through the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp. Since its founding in 1992, 531 firms have benefited from the program, with loans provided by banks, and the city helping to guarantee the loan.
Penman also singled out the administration’s policies to streamline permitting and regulatory processes for developers. Overall, since 1987, the year before Norquist took office, the total number of business operating in Milwaukee has grown by nearly 2,000, to 13,529 today, she said.
At the same time, the city has held tax levy increases below the inflation rate, encouraged policies that have brought more than 3,400 units of new housing downtown, promoted the development of the Riverwalk and promoted redevelopment in areas as varied as Wisconsin Avenue, Martin Luther King Drive and Capitol Drive.
"Either the individuals interviewed are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them," Penman said, "or we have not done a very good job of getting the word out about our success."
Why hasn’t the message resonated? "I think the mayor’s been misunderstood," said Peterson, a public relations professional. Norquist’s cerebral style may work against him from a public relations point of view, Peterson said. "He’s not a Rudy Giuliani, who’s a cheerleader.
"My gut tells me that history is going to look very favorably upon his image."
The 2004 Milwaukee Mayoral Race
Small Business Times asked owners of businesses within the city of Milwaukee to comment on potential candidates to succeed Mayor John Norquist. The list of names includes people who have stated they will run for the position or whose names are being discussed in the community.
— Most familiar names: Tom Barrett, Tom Nardelli, Marvin Pratt, David Clarke, Michael D’Amato
— Most favored potential candidates: David Clarke, Tom Barrett, Tom Nardelli
— Top three issues for the new mayor: Taxes, transportation/infrastucture, crime
— Characteristics the new mayor should possess: relationship skills, strength/vision, integrity, business/financial skills, consensus-building
What poll respondents said about the Norquist administration’s actions for business
"Not a lot that’s been positive."
"Nothing. Only large corporations got any attention."
Water Street. Lakefront."
"More downtown development; 6th Street Bridge."
"Attracted things to Milwaukee; Good mayor."
"Kept taxes down."
"Held taxes at a realistic level."
April 4, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee