Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:28 pm
The ship is finally coming in for one of Michael Cudahy’s pet projects. Pier Wisconsin, which Cudahy has supported with passion and funding, has won Milwaukee Common Council approval after more than a year of community debate about the design of the building.
Cudahy said he was "folded, spindled, mutilated and otherwise abused" when the original design for Pier Wisconsin was criticized by the nearby Milwaukee Art Museum and rejected by the city.
Now that the $46 million Pier Wisconsin project has been redesigned and is proceeding on the city’s Municipal Pier, Cudahy is ready to move on.
However, the 80-year-old founder of Marquette Electronics is at a point in his life when he’s not afraid to say exactly what’s on his mind about the future of Milwaukee.
In a recent interview with Small Business Times reporter Andrew Weiland and executive editor Steve Jagler, Cudahy rebuffed his critics and defended his projects, as well his passion to bring a modern mass transit system to Milwaukee. And no, the philanthropist has no plans to buy the Milwaukee Brewers. The following are excerpts from that interview.
SBT: What are visitors who come to Pier Wisconsin going to experience?
CUDAHY: "They’re going to experience a lot of wonderful thrills. First of all, let’s start with the aquatarium. What they will experience there is a model of an old, old schooner, the Challenge, a very exciting boat circa the 1840s.
SBT: What else?
CUDAHY: "That’s for beginnings. Then there will be all sorts of interactive displays of our maritime heritage. In the 1800s, Lake Michigan was filled with schooners. There were hundreds of them. There were thousands in the Great Lakes, if you can imagine.
"The next important subject is fresh water. There are 960 trillion gallons of fresh water in Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes contain more fresh water than any other group of bodies of water in the world. We’re the envy of California, for instance. They would love to have a pipeline from here out of Lake Michigan to the West Coast. But our water is not for sale."
SBT: Anything else?
CUDAHY: "The next thing, very important, as you go down the master staircase, you go down underneath the lake, and there will be a number of fresh and saltwater aquariums, truly modern aquariums. There are no saltwater aquariums in this area of Wisconsin. The fish and the creatures you will find in those aquariums are spectacular. There will be things like jellyfish and octopuses. And then there will be freshwater aquariums with things like trout, and there will be a tank, we hope, where the kids can actually touch the fish. Very exciting. So there will be fresh and saltwater aquariums, OK?"
SBT: Any other features?
CUDAHY: "I think if you do that, that’s probably exciting enough, except for one thing, and that is the digital theater. We’re going to be directly tied via high-speed internet to Bob Ballard’s institution in Connecticut, where high-definition television will be relayed back and forth. Bob Ballard is the guy who found the Titanic. And Bob and I are friends, and we have made an arrangement where we can share with him his explorations."
SBT: Also, the Denis Sullivan, the lake schooner, will have a permanent home at the Pier?
CUDAHY: "Right. That’s another attraction. By the way, just to get back on the exploration. There are a lot of shipwrecks in Lake Michigan to be explored. And those will be explored. While we are exploring those, we will be relaying back to this digital theater."
SBT: Who is going to be doing that?
CUDAHY: "Maybe Ballard. We’re not sure yet. Somebody said there’s a something circa 1650 or 1640 ship up there on the northern end of this lake that has $450 million of gold on it. And nobody’s been able to find it yet. I promise you, Bob Ballard will find it with those vehicles."
SBT: How much money have you contributed to the Pier Wisconsin project? And why is this a project you wanted to be involved in?
CUDAHY: "Well the answer to the first question I don’t reveal. There are a number of wonderful citizens who have contributed a lot of money to it. The whole project is about $46 million."
SBT: How much have you raised so far?
CUDAHY: "We are at about $30 (million). We’re doing very well."
SBT: How many people do you think will come to Pier Wisconsin every year?
CUDAHY: "I don’t want to brag. I think when we first open up, it’s going to be very, very crowded. But we’re hoping for a continuum of something in the order of a quarter of a million (per year) to 350,000."
SBT: Why did you decide to move Discovery World over here from the Milwaukee Public Museum?
CUDAHY: "In the first place, the Public Museum has been after us for some time about, ‘Hey, we need that space.’ We built the space over there. And I kept saying, ‘Well if you want us to move out, you’ve got to give us enough money so we can build somewhere else.’"
SBT: Do they want to expand?
CUDAHY: "Yeah. So, eventually we made a deal to do that. It’s a very logical thing, in my mind at least, that those two attractions be brought together."
SBT: This Pier Wisconsin project was kind of kicked around for a while, and there was some controversy about the design. At this point, are you happy with how the redesign turned out?
CUDAHY: "I’m very happy with it now. The controversy is behind us. Now, why was that (redesign) so approved and the other was not? If you got a couple hours, we could talk about that."
SBT: Were you ever to a point, Michael, during the flap over the original design, where you just wanted to throw up your hands and say …
CUDAHY: "As you might put it in the vernacular, ‘Screw it?’ Pretty damn close. You know, when you go with your friends to the city and say, ‘We want to do something good for the kids of this community,’ and you get folded, spindled, mutilated and otherwise abused, pretty soon you say, ‘Hmm.’
"I did, matter of fact. Sam Johnson is a good friend of mine. I did go down there and visit with Sam and some of these guys from Racine. And they just had open arms. ‘Good God! Bring it here! Wonderful!’
"But I’m a Milwaukeean, and I think what broke the deadlock was the fact that we decided to go ahead with this move of Discovery World down to join this. And of course, that required a redesign, because it’s another 35,000 to 40,000 square feet. Then you say, ‘Why were you so opposed to the first design?’ And they really don’t know why. The problem with architecture is that it’s totally subjective. Totally."
SBT: Well, when the daily (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) has one architectural critic, and she has one opinion, and …
CUDAHY: "There’s a certain reporter who works for the Milwaukee Journal who fashions herself a real guru in architecture … her game is to say negative things. Reporters all know, if you want to stir up the pot, you stir up the pot."
SBT: Will there be any preference for a local contractor to build the Pier Wisconsin?
CUDAHY: "Oh yeah, I think local contractors. Not necessarily downtown local contractors, but local contractors, meaning this area."
SBT: When do you anticipate construction beginning, and when do you think the facility will be open?
CUDAHY: "We hope to break ground in early May. And we are committed to completing the project in the fall of 2005, and it will be done."
SBT: In general terms, could Milwaukee do more with its lakefront?
CUDAHY: "I think it should. There are other projects. There is the (Navy gunship) USS Des Moines, which has been rattled around. It doesn’t belong here. If it were the USS Wisconsin, I’d feel differently. But you can’t get the USS Wisconsin through the St. Lawrence Seaway, unfortunately, because I looked into it."
SBT: There are some people who say we should put all of these projects on the lakefront to attract tourists, and others who don’t want anything on the lakefront except green space. What do you think?
CUDAHY: "Obviously we shouldn’t clutter up the lake with a lot of hokey kind of carnival-ish attractions. I think Summerfest went far enough. I don’t think we need anything more like that. Yet at the same time, I think the lake is for the people. Not just the chosen few who live along the lake. It’s for the city of Milwaukee and for southeastern Wisconsin.
"And I think that the attractions, particularly educational attractions relative to the children of the community, should have the advantage of coming here and doing things on the lake and learning about the lake and how we are related to it. There are several other possible attractions. I think it was the Milwaukee Journal that at one time said, ‘Next thing you know, there will be one thing after another up and down the lake.’ I want to tell you, I don’t think anybody else has the fortitude to go through what I went through to bring it about."
SBT: Has your relationship with the art museum been repaired after the design controversy?
CUDAHY: "I think it has, yes. I hope it’s been fully repaired, because I think it’s very important that these institutions work together. You can’t have conflict down here. That’s the last thing we need."
SBT: We wanted to ask you about a few other things. One is the Pabst Theater, which you purchased in 2002 from the city. How is that endeavor going?
CUDAHY: "Very well. Gary Witt is the new manager. And Gary has had experience in booking shows, but he has not had experience in running a theater. Rather typical of yours truly, I hired him because I had a gut feeling. I did that with Discovery World with (executive director) Paul Krajniak. Just had a gut feeling. Gary has turned out to be really great. He’s learned the theater business backward and forwards and upside down. He made a lot of mistakes the first year. That was the fall of 2002 that I acquired it, and 2003 was a roller coaster."
SBT: How much money have you put into that project?
CUDAHY: "I put about a half million (dollars ) into it, counting some hardware. Last year, he (Witt) learned a lot, and this year, 2004, we are heading for black ink, I’ll put it that way. We aren’t quite there yet. I would say 2005 is going to be black ink. And since it’s a not-for-profit, my new expression is not-for-profit, not-for-loss. If we get it in the black, (the profits) will go to the employees, and it will go to improving the theater even further."
SBT: I’d like to know what you thought, Michael, when a certain radio talk show host in town on the AM dial was constantly popping off about you getting the Pabst Theater for $1.
CUDAHY: "Well, I don’t want to address that guy particularly. His job is to make controversy. That’s OK. What I would say is you shouldn’t just say for $1. You should say for $1 and what else? You should read the contract. I obligated myself to do quite a bit there. A dollar is really inconsequential. The obligation to the city in providing a good running theater was the task that I took on, and it’s been a very serious task."
SBT: Have you given any thought to buying the Milwaukee Brewers or being an investor with a local group that may buy the ball team?
CUDAHY: "No. I’m just going to answer it with a no."
SBT: Were you approached at all?
SBT: And that was your answer, "No?"
CUDAHY: "Well, actually it was, ‘Hell, no.’ I think that’s a terrible situation."
SBT: Do you have any other grand ideas in Milwaukee?
CUDAHY: "I’ve been involved with the connector project, the transportation thing. I’ve taken a number of groups overseas to look at advanced technologies in transportation. I’m very much persuaded that we should have such transportation. It’s part of a city growing up and being more active and attracting more industry or whatever."
SBT: Given the political tax climate, is Milwaukee any closer to getting a modern mass transit system?
CUDAHY: "That’s controversial, probably more so than this project (Pier Wisconsin). I don’t know why I do this to myself. I think it’s a matter of education. There’s a certain bias against light rail, and in the city particularly. When we talk about these guided (electric) buses, we are functionally talking about the same thing. But the vehicles and the installation and everything else are totally different."
SBT: What kind of system exactly do you think would work in Milwaukee?
CUDAHY: "It’s the rubber-tired guided bus. And you say, ‘Well what’s the difference? Then just have an ordinary bus.’ But when you guide a bus, you can do all kinds of interesting things. For instance, you can load and unload about 10 times faster because you can come that close to the curb, and you can have the vehicle’s floor the same height as the curb.
"You have big doors that open up and everybody goes, ‘Whoosh!’ I saw almost 150 people get on and get off in 45 seconds over in France. It’s the damndest thing you ever saw. It works beautifully. But there’s a lot of people in this town that say, ‘Oh no it’s the same thing as light rail, and we don’t like light rail.’ Why don’t you like light rail?
"I think there’s some people that don’t like light rail because we have a tendency around here to isolate our communities. I think Wauwatosa, for instance, sits there and says, ‘Don’t bring that stuff out here. I don’t want those people here.’ Wauwatosa – I would just as soon put a fence around all of Wauwatosa. ‘Live here all by myself.’ This is totally contrary to the way I look at it. Totally. It’s a community. Everybody should be like this, hand-in-hand."
SBT: Are there any other projects that are going to keep Michael Cudahy busy in his retirement?
CUDAHY: "Gee wiz, fellas, I just turned 80. The piano player is doing the best he can. Oh, there are other things I have sort of cooking in my mind. I wouldn’t want to talk about right now."
Size: 100,000 square feet
Includes: Great Lakes Aquatarium and Discovery World
Cost: $46 million
Location: Municipal Pier, Milwaukee
Web page: www.pierwisconsin.org
When opening: Fall of 2005
Architect: Hammel, Green and Abrahamson
April 16, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI