Wauwatosa Mayor Theresa Estness recently announced that she will not run for re-election next year. Estness has been the city’s mayor since 2000 and was an alderwoman for 10 years before becoming mayor. During her years leading the city, development in Wauwatosa has boomed, and the community has become one of the most important business centers in southeastern Wisconsin. In a recent interview with Small Business Times managing editor Andrew Weiland, Estness reflected upon her time as mayor and what lies ahead for Wauwatosa. Following are excerpts from that interview.
SBT: What were some of the highlights and major accomplishments of your tenure as mayor?
Estness: “I think we really have to point to the whole (Milwaukee County) Research Park area and being able to consummate the deal that brought GE (Healthcare) to the City of Wauwatosa.”
SBT: What do you think GE brings to Wauwatosa?
Estness: “Certainly it’s the prestige of having another major company here. We are the home of several major companies: Briggs and Stratton; Harley; until recently we did have Falk. We have a strong presence with General Growth properties at Mayfair (Mall). So we do have a strong corporate presence. To add another company, a strong business and the influence that GE has throughout the world is important.”
SBT: During the process of GE deciding where they were going to go, I know the City of Milwaukee tried hard to get them downtown, and other suburban communities were also courting them.
Estness: “There were other states, too. Illinois and Georgia, I believe.”
SBT: During those negotiations, you had different communities offering different incentive packages. (Wawatosa provided a $10 million low-interest loan and a $15 million grant for a 1,200-car parking structure to Irgens Development Partners LLC, which developed the 506,000-square-foot GE building. The funds came from a tax incremental financing district. The city also bought the research park site for $2.61 million.) There’s always a debate about how much subsidy a city should provide to attract a business. How do you view that whole process?
Estness: “Actually, we asked them to meet with us because we thought we were no longer in the running. And we invited them to have lunch with us. And we talked about the culture of Wauwatosa. That it tends to be a highly educated community. It tends to be a healthy community. We talked about its geographic proximity to not only Milwaukee but Madison and Chicago. We talked about its easy access in relationship to the freeways. We talked about the partnership with medical entities on the county grounds. We talked about the high level of entrepreneurship that happens in Wauwatosa and pointed to businesses in our village trade district. A lot of them are women-owned and women-managed businesses. We even talked about the fact that two of the best restaurants in the state are literally within walking distance, Eddie Martini’s and Bartolotta’s. So we didn’t even talk money. We talked about why Wauwatosa would be a good fit for a corporation like GE. That was in June (of 2003). I think it was in January (of 2004) that we started talking about it in earnest.”
SBT: At what point does the discussion get to dollars and cents?
Estness: “That happened in January, when they approached us and said, ‘We’d like to come here. We need to talk about what’s going to make it work.’ And that was part of several weeks worth of discussions.”
SBT: When you’re having those discussions about providing assistance to a business, how much is too much? How do you decide what amount of subsidy is appropriate?
Estness: “It’s sort of an ongoing discussion. Obviously some of it was in the form of a loan, some of it was an outright grant. That whole area was constructed as a TIF in the early 90s. Bringing a project of this magnitude has really afforded us an opportunity to close out the TIF much sooner than we anticipated. Since GE came, we now have a (198-room Crowne Plaza) hotel that will be opening in the spring. We will have our first LEED-certified (office) building in the spring (the 165,000-square-foot Mayfair Woods Business and Technology Center in the research park being developed by Irgens). We have another consulting firm, Bloom Consultants, who has a building that is up and running. There is an expansion on the Alterra building. It’s just a phenomenal amount of growth in a short period of time in that research park. And seeing that happen, and you talk about the long-term benefit (of the GE deal) that has caused us to look ahead and say how do we continue to have room for technology-based businesses and the spinoff businesses that they will hopefully create? That’s why we are having the discussion on Burleigh Triangle (northeast of Burleigh Street and Highway 45), where the Roundy’s and the Kohl’s distribution sites used to be. That 60 acres is potentially another place for technology and business-based companies in Wauwatosa that complement each other from the brain base and getting gray matter here, but certainly it’s job creation, it’s income generation.These are people who will be coming to the community, staying in hotels, going shopping, going to restaurants. So, it creates not only opportunities for us as citizens, as residents of the city but for the broader area for maintaining that competitive edge.”
SBT: So you feel the efforts the city made to bring in GE were well worth the investment?
SBT: You touched on the redevelopment of the Burleigh Triangle area. Is that the next big project for this community? What do you see happening there and when do you think it will happen?
Estness: “Right now the current owners (Chicago-based HSA Commercial Inc.) are in the process of demolishing the buildings. They are going to phase in the development and phase out the current leases. They are very much aware of the study that we did with Vandewalle and Associates. My impression is they like what they see. My hope is and my sense is that once they get everything in order as far as what they are demolishing and what they need to keep, at least in the short term, my sense is they will be fairly aggressive in coming forward and bringing that whole development to the next phase.”
SBT: What’s the city’s vision, a pretty dense, mixed-use development over there?
Estness: “Absolutely, you said it all. We could do a typical strip mall, but that isn’t the highest and best return. It’s in an area that is somewhat isolated from existing residential neighborhoods, which affords us the opportunity to have a much more dense development.”
SBT: Reguarding the Icon Development project (a proposed, hotel, medical office building and 18-story condo building development planned for the former Schlossmann’s Dodge City site). Where does that stand and how do you see that playing out?
Estness: “They already have their preliminary plans approved. Now they need to come forward with their final plans. I think it’s a pivotal project. It’s expanding our hotel base. It’s mindful of Wauwatosa continuing to be established as a medical destination, there are medical office buildings as part of that proposal. And condominiums.”
SBT: Continuing on the idea of the city as a medical destination, the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center has exploded with expansions by Froedtert, Children’s Hospital and the Medical College.
Estness: “I would hope so. It’s what that land was designated for. They’re quality institutions that are attracting the best and the brightest in their fields to come here and either practice, learn or do research. The Medical College provides a phenomenal infusion of dollars from research and technology.”
SBT: Now I want to ask you about some of the challenges facing Wauwatosa. The Zoo Interchange has become a major traffic bottleneck. How important is the proposed expansion of the interchange, and how can it get done politically?
Estness: “Certainly the Zoo Interchange is critical. And it’s not only the Zoo Interchange, it’s Mayfair Road up to Watertown Plank Road that impacts what is happening not only with the medical quadrant but the research park quadrant and traffic … The challenge is there are certain things that need to be done, but how do you balance that with other expansions that don’t need to be done? The City of Milwaukee has gone on record of not wanting to see expansion (of I-94) by Wood (National Cemetery). You can still deal with the Zoo Interchange.”
SBT: It seems like there’s this idea that expanding the Zoo Interchange is tied with the proposal to expand the whole freeway system in southeastern Wisconsin, which is opposed by some. Are you saying we can still expand the Zoo Interchange and discuss the other areas later?
Estness: “Yes. Because even if you look at SEWRPC’s (Southeastern Regional Planning Commission) study from a couple years ago, it was minutes, literally minutes (in reduced commute times for expanding I-94). Is it worth I don’t know how many millions of dollars to create more lanes between the Marquette Interchange and the zoo when all you are talking about is like three minutes of (reduced) travel time? (Expanding the Zoo Interchange) is much different than (expanding) the area of 94 between Marquette and the zoo. For the investment, several million dollars for less than 5 minutes of travel time improvement. That’s much different than the Zoo Interchange which carries a higher load of traffic than the Marquette Interchange ever did. There are more vehicles that go through the Zoo Interchange on a daily basis than go through the Marquette. And to also address the safety issues. It’s just not safe to come up 94 and try to get on 45.”
SBT: What about Mayfair Mall? The incidents of crime at the mall have been well-documented. The city has gotten involved in trying to improve public safety at the mall. Today, where do you think things stand?
Estness: “We’ve always had a very collaborative and cooperative working experience with Mayfair Mall, the owners and the manager. Nationally, we’re seeing more shopping malls move to some sort of curfew requirements. To their credit, Mayfair made their business decision. They always said it would be fluid. They’ve already modified it once. I’ve had people say to me that they have gone back to shopping at Mayfair and they’ve had a delightful shopping experience. I’ve had other people say they’ve noticed no difference, that’s where they’ve always shopped and that’s where they will continue to shop. So some of it, I think, is perspective. It is a huge economic driver in the city.”
SBT: The mall is a private business. What is the city’s role to make sure it’s safe and successful?
Estness: “They’re a taxpayer. They’re an entity in the city. We have a requirement for police and fire protection for them, just as we would for anybody else in the city. To their credit, again they have worked in partnership with us. They paid for one or two officers. They’ve totally outfitted an officer there. We worked in cooperation with them to put in a booking station. So we have a place right there in case something happens that our officers can take care of that business there instead of transferring people back to our police department, which keeps a presence there.”
SBT: Looking forward, what do you see in the future for Wauwatosa?
Estness: “I hope we continue to move forward and highlight the technology and innovation components of our companies here. Again, geographically being close to Madison and Milwaukee can help foster that technology triangle.”
SBT: Are you going to miss being mayor at all?
Estness: “Oh, sure. I’ve said part of me will always grieve that I’m not doing this. But it is time to move on. It’s been 18 years. When I look at Wauwatosa when I started in 1990 (as an alderwoman) vs. Wauwatosa when I leave office in 2008, it is a very different place. It’s much more cosmopolitan. It’s much more exciting. I think our increase in valuation of our property has just exploded, which continues to position us well for the future.”