Shining the light on the mayor’s legacy
In his last few months as the mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist is not going quietly into the good night.
As he reflects back on his 15 years in office, Norquist defines the success of his tenure not in terms of what he did, but in terms of what he allowed the private sector and the people of his city to accomplish.
In an interview with Small Business Times executive editor Steve Jagler, Norquist discussed his career as Milwaukee’s mayor, his priorities in his remaining months in office and his personal future. Norquist has a full agenda of issues that will have significant on Milwaukee’s businesses and its citizenry.
Indeed, the Norquist years have included many triumphs: A rebirth of downtown housing, the Midwest Airlines Center, the Riverwalk, the redevelopment of the Historic Third Ward and others. At the same time, Norquist reduced the size of city government and the city’s tax rate.
Still, Norquist’s legacy no doubt will be tarnished by a sex scandal.
The following are excerpts from the interview, in which Norquist pulled no punches and spoke candidly about issues such as regional cooperation, the Marquette Interchange, downtown development, Miller Park and what he says is former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s lasting adverse impact on the city.
SBT: Mr. Mayor, let’s start with some current things bubbling at the surface. Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley recently accused the City of Milwaukee of "pirating" Roundy’s Inc., of raiding the company to move its headquarters from Pewaukee to downtown Milwaukee. It is my understanding that, in fact, the company approached the city. Is that true?
Norquist: Right. We did talk to a Waukesha County development person, so they knew about it. We didn’t offer them (Roundy’s) anything unusual. The bulk of the big financing is very typical.
SBT: What did the Roundy’s people tell you about why they wanted to move to downtown Milwaukee?
Norquist: Well, I think (Roundy’s chief executive officer Robert) Mariano is kind of an urban guy. He’s from Chicago, and this is closer to Chicago for him. I think he didn’t want to just be in a parking lot someplace.
SBT: Similarly, GE Medical is shopping around for a location to bring 300-some well-paying jobs in the region and seems to be dangling those jobs in front of places like the Heritage Reserve development in Menomonee Falls, Pabst Farms in Oconomowoc and downtown Milwaukee. Do you think downtown is very much in the running for that project?
Norquist: I do, but I don’t really want to say too much about it, because GE doesn’t want us to talk about it. I think the basic reason they’re interested in downtown is because they have high-income, high-education workers for this part of their operation, and if you’re trying to get some engineer from the University of Illinois or a Ph.D from Columbia or New York or something like that, they tend to want to be in or near a large, sophisticated city. And Wisconsin has one entry in that category — Milwaukee.
You look at tech companies clustering downtown. There’s a reason for that. Young, urban, professional types really do want to have a 24-hour, or at least 18-hour, environment.
SBT: And diverse.
Norquist: Yeah, they like the diversity. They like the sophistication. They like the feel they get when they’re around a lot of other smart people. And if they’re in a world dominated by cars, they don’t meet people as much.
It’s not that we don’t have cars. We have lots of them. Most people in Milwaukee have a car. They just don’t have to use it to travel quite so far so often.
SBT: The Park East development — is that making progress, as far as recruiting tenants, businesses, to locate there?
Norquist: The land isn’t available on the market yet. They’re still preparing it. I am (confident), because of what we’ve seen on the Beer Line nearby.
We’ve added 3,330 units of housing since 1997 downtown. We have two high-quality office buildings nearing completion downtown right now. The desire to be in the urban place is really strong. It’s the trend in the East Coast and West Coast, and now it’s the trend here.
There are some cities that aren’t experiencing that very much, like Detroit, but the cities that have quality urban destinations (are thriving).
SBT: This trend is a total reversal from the 1980s, when all of the movement was out of the cities to the suburbs.
Norquist: Yeah, people are bored with it. After World War I, the Depression and World War II, anything old was bad. So, abandoning the cities seemed like the natural thing to do. But that only worked as long as the World War II generation was in power. Their theories still run a lot of government policy.
SBT: Like highways? You’ve been critical of the state’s plans to widen the freeways in Milwaukee.
Norquist: They spend way too much money. They’re raising taxes in this budget by raising $10 on the (vehicle) registration fee. It’s amazing. If we put the $10 registration fee on it for the city, which we could – it’s called a wheel tax – there would be an outcry in the press. The reason there would be an outcry is because it wouldn’t necessarily go to the road-builders.
The road-builders are completely dependent upon the government for almost every dollar they get. They’re part of the government. They’re not really part of the private sector.
SBT: In the big picture, the federal and state governments are broke, and they’re freezing or cutting aid to municipalities. Are they just passing the buck, as far as the tax burden goes?
Norquist: There’s some of that. There’s no question it’s a passing of the buck. But I think state government has too much money, it spends too much money, it has too much power.
One of the biggest threats to Milwaukee is the huge buildup of state government under (former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy) Thompson. He added 20% to the state workforce. He commandeered money and started handing it out through the political process under the name of economic development. We don’t need that. We have banks here. He kept taxes high, and he was able to raise taxes consistently, because, without raising their tax rate, as income went up with inflation, the state just kept taking in more money.
At the local level, you have to lower your rate to keep from taking more money. There’s much more scrutiny at the local level. Since I became mayor, the city’s municipal tax rate has gone from $13.09 to $10.15. And I bet if you polled the average person in Milwaukee, they’d say their taxes went up.
We’ve cut 9% of our workforce. The state added 20% to their workforce. I think the city has benefited economically from having a smaller city government. I just think it’s bad that the state has gotten so fat.
SBT: Can the city’s government be cut any more?
Norquist: Sure. It should be cut steadily, mostly in ways that increase its value to citizens and increase its productivity. Right now, the state’s in a tough position. The governor’s budget cuts shared revenue 7%. We can live with that. It’s going to be tough, but ….
SBT: You don’t think the next mayor is going to walk into a situation where it’s inevitable that he or she is going to have to raise taxes?
Norquist: No. But it’s difficult to cut taxes. I’ve never had the endorsement of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), the main municipal employees’ union. I ran four times and never got its endorsement. I like AFSCME. I have nothing against them, but in order to get its endorsement, you have to spend a lot of money, which Thompson did. Thompson had the state employees’ endorsement the last two times he ran. That’s one of reasons spending ramped up. If somebody wanted something from the state and they had political power or clout, they got it.
Norquist: They got it. Anybody who had a lot of political power and clout, they got it. And in the long run, it doesn’t work. Right now, the state has hit the wall. And (Gov. Jim) Doyle has the unpleasant job of cleaning it up.
SBT: Do you think Doyle will reverse the trend?
Norquist: I think Doyle has got his plate full just trying to balance his budget. My one criticism of Doyle is that at a time when he’s cutting back on the state budget … why on earth he would want to spend $360 million more on the Marquette Interchange than the DOT (Department of Transportation) itself was recommending in 1997 …? Why?
SBT: So, you would agree that the Marquette Interchange is crumbling and needs to be replaced, but you disagree on the plans that are advocated by the state?
Norquist: Right. There’s no reason to double-lane all the ramps and build this whole, huge facility. It’s a complete waste.
SBT: A couple of downtown developments still hanging fire — the Harley-Davidson Museum. Have you heard anything from them?
Norquist: No. It’s not a city museum, and they can put the museum anywhere they want. I hope it’s in the city. It would be nice if it was downtown, but I honestly don’t know.
SBT: Is The Grand Avenue redevelopment coming along as you would have liked?
Norquist: I don’t own The Grand Avenue. I’m not trying to be flippant about these things, but I really believe in the private market, and I don’t think the City of Milwaukee should try to operate The Grand Avenue. So, you’ll have to ask them how they’re doing.
I like what’s happening on Wisconsin Avenue. You have Borders Books, which is doing really well, and from what I’ve heard, they’re making money. I think the retail on Wisconsin Avenue’s starting to come back really strong on both sides of the street.
SBT: In the same vein, I realize that you’re not a member of the Potawatomi tribe, but would the notion of their casino being moved downtown, maybe in the Park East development, appeal to you?
Norquist: From the city’s standpoint, if they went to the northwest corner of downtown, they’re not around retail. You can’t have retail next to a gambling casino. It doesn’t work. Retail next to a gambling casino tends to be where people get "comped" if they lose a lot of money. You know, if they lose $100,000, then the casino will give them a $10,000 comp, and they can go to a jewelry store and buy something for their girlfriend and feel like a winner, even though they lost. That’s basically the kind of retail you find next to casinos. You don’t find department stores and shoe stores and regular retail next to a casino.
The real key thing is, does the Potawatomi want to do it? It’s up to them.
SBT: It’s water under the bridge, but looking back at the Miller Park debate now, was an opportunity missed by not locating that ballpark downtown?
Norquist: No. I actually think it worked out pretty well, because the housing market downtown is so strong, and the stadium would have cast a huge parking shadow. I mean, it didn’t need to. It could have been like Wrigley Field, where you have very little parking associated with the stadium.
There’s plenty of parking spaces downtown. It’s just that the Brewers didn’t control it. In order to get the stadium downtown, you would have had to have 12,000 surface spots, which means that huge blocks after blocks would have had to be torn down to create a parking lot.
And you know, if the team’s finances wouldn’t have worked out, you would have had a huge white elephant downtown. So frankly, I think downtown’s much better off as it turned out. If the team had not been so parking-obsessed, a stadium could have worked downtown. In Baltimore, there’s no parking at all associated with the stadium. You just find your parking spots downtown.
Whatever. I don’t feel bad about that anymore.
SBT: There’s a lot of development spilling out of the Historic Third Ward into Walker’s Point and the Port of Milwaukee, isn’t there?
Norquist: Let me get to some of the main points. Basically, I’ve been kind of reacting to things you have brought up. Downtown Milwaukee, and Milwaukee generally, is well placed in the market. Young people like the city. They like urban. They like Chicago. They like Milwaukee. They like New York. Wisconsin has one big city, and it’s a real opportunity for the state, if they don’t screw it up.
What they really need to do is try to support urbanism. This could really be a hot place. This can be the second wave of the tech revolution. In order for Wisconsin to get a piece of that, you have to have an urban center. You can’t come in and bust it up, break it up and be jealous of it, smash it into the ground.
That’s where my problem comes with the SEWRPC (Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission) regional plan strategy. They have no understanding of urbanism; they have no understanding of the value of the city. They’re out in an office park in Pewaukee. No one who uses transit can even visit the place, and they’ve come up with a plan that will basically make Milwaukee a mini-Detroit.
I think people need to resist it. The best way to resist it is to stop the DOT from getting any more money, because they’re not going to spend it on things that are good for the cities. They’re not going to spend it on things that are good for Wisconsin generally, either. They’re spending it on things that will drain the vitality of the state and turn it into sort of a truck route for people going from Chicago to Minneapolis. That’s basically what they’re doing. And it’s very thoughtless.
If everybody agrees that no taxes in Wisconsin should go up, then DOT won’t be able to do this. The State of Wisconsin has just gotten bold and arrogant and over-financed.
SBT: Turning to the Menomonee River Valley. Things haven’t been moving too quickly there. CMC Heartland still owns a large tract of land there. Is that the holdup? Is that near a resolution?
Norquist: Yeah, it’s very near. It’s near the end of the condemnation process. I think the valley will really turn out to be a real asset over time. I think Canal Street is going to help open up development opportunities.
You know, the businesses people really care about aren’t always the real big ones. I mean, having a café latté stand near your workplace has become real important. We have the highest density of café latté stands in the state of Wisconsin. Some of the coffee companies, you know, their real estate agents were reluctant to open coffee stands in the inner city, so we have independent coffee stands like Bean Head and yes, Sherman Perk. These entrepreneurs figured out that Blacks drink coffee — quite a revelation. Maybe Starbucks will figure that out someday.
SBT: As you look back, mayor … the Riverwalk, the condos, more people are living downtown, the Midwest Airlines Center, the redevelopment of Capitol Court, the creation of some 50 commercial districts in the city, you’ve streamlined the city development permit process ….
Norquist: The ones I’m most proud of are the things that are private sector or induced private sector investment, like the Riverwalk. For a little bit of city money, there was a lot of development along the river. And the same thing for Capitol Court. We helped a little bit with the environmental cleanup and the streets that came in there, but you have the first complete conversion from a suburban-style shopping center to an urban village kind of product, including a Wal-Mart in it with a front-door street address.
SBT: I hate to ask the Barbara Walters question, but what will John Norquist’s legacy be 20 years from now?
Norquist: I think it will probably be not much. Twenty years, I mean if I try rattling off the names of Milwaukee mayors … Mayor (Henry) Maier — people will remember him. (Frank) Zeidler — people remember him because he’s still living and he’s still very articulate. But who remembers John Bohn? Daniel Hoan, you might remember him from the (Hoan) bridge, which he probably wouldn’t have appreciated that much. He probably would have thought it was too big (laughs). Then you go before that, and who was mayor before Dan Hoan? I’m embarrassed to say I can’t tell you.
I’m not into the legacy thing. You try to hang on to a legacy; it’s gone.
I think that, overall, the city’s better off for the time I’ve been in, and I think that most of the people that work for me in policy-making positions were proud to do it and proud to be part of the Norquist administration.
I don’t think there’s any point in trying to embed your legacy. I don’t want to name anything after myself, but if the city’s prosperous 20, 30 years from now, and I’m sitting in a wheelchair someplace in a nursing home, and you look at Milwaukee on TV and you hear good things about it, then I’ll feel pretty good about that.
SBT: Do you plan to continue living in the city?
Norquist: I don’t know yet. My wife and I are both looking at our career options and so forth. So, we’ll see.
SBT: Might you ever consider running for a public office ever again?
Norquist: I don’t think so. I don’t see that as part of anything.
SBT: Finally, an obvious question. It would look like I’m putting my head in the sand if I don’t ask it. But, your sexual relationship (with former aide) Marilyn Figueroa — would that be the main regret of your career as mayor?
Norquist: I don’t rank my regrets. And I don’t dwell on them.
SBT: What are your main priorities in the remaining months in office?
Norquist: Well, we’ve got this budget shortfall that is being pushed down from the state. We want to do the best we can. You know, we are going to hit bone. We’re going to hit muscle, anyway. It’s going to be a tough budget.
We want to push the real estate market real hard, the urbanism. We’re seeing booming development on Brady Street, the east side, Bay View, downtown, Martin Luther King Drive and Mitchell Street, which the business community doesn’t pay much attention to, I think partly just because there are a lot of merchants on Mitchell Street that don’t speak English.
We’ve got our Main Streets Program, and we’re starting to see a Hmong/Laotian street develop along National (Avenue) between 33rd and 38th streets, called "Silver City." I think that’s going to be big — a huge plus for the neighborhood.
That’s how the city regenerates itself.
SBT: As you look at the field of potential candidates to succeed you as mayor, do any of them have a vision that most closely resembles your philosophy?
Norquist: I don’t think they’ve had a chance to express themselves. I mean, all the questions they keep getting from the media are, "How much money have you raised?" and "Which sleazebag PR guy is on your side?" You know, the media really needs to start to focus on issues and find out how the candidates feel. Ask them. Don’t ask me. I don’t know where a lot of them stand, because no one has ever asked them where they stand.
SBT: Are you bullish about Milwaukee’s future?
Norquist: I am. Milwaukee’s a really great city. It suffers its slings and arrows from time to time, but it’s the most valuable real estate per square mile in the state of Wisconsin.
June 13, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee