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The parkland menace PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 April 2015 19:16

While some Port officials talk of selling parks, citizens here and across the nation support protecting land of natural value in the public trust

Folks, we’ve got trouble, trouble right here in Lake City (a.k.a. Port Washington). It’s not too many pool halls, the “trouble in River City” made famous in “The Music Man.” No, friends, this could be worse trouble. It’s too many parks!

    Your hear the statement fairly often these days, mainly from city officials: Port Washington has too much park land.

    This apparently is viewed as a serious problem. It is being used as a rationale for the possibility of selling some city parks. It has even been mentioned as a defense for the Common Council’s controversial effort to sell publicly owned land overlooking the north slip marina for private development.

    The statement is not a fact; it’s an opinion, and a dubious one at that. Port Washington has a large amount of park land, probably more than most cities its size. By far, most of the park acreage is in four parks, Upper Lake Park, Veterans Park, Rotary Park and Coal Dock Park. All of these parks are on the lakefront.

    Port Washington is fortunate to have more lakefront land than most communities. Therefore, it has more park land. If this land on the shore of Lake Michigan had not been put in the public trust by wise city leaders of the past, there really would be trouble in Lake City.

    When he proposed recently that an inventory be taken of city-owned parkland and other land with a view to offering some of it for sale, Ald. Bill Driscoll was not, of course, suggesting that any of the lakefront parks be sold for development (even though Rotary Park would be a spectacular site for a brewpub). He has identified a few small, unused parcels that probably should be sold (the former site of a water tower, for example), but it would be a mistake to sell the small parks on his list.

    The undeveloped land of what is now the Oakland Avenue Green had been used for years as though it were a park. When the land was to be put up for sale by its owner, We Energies, residents of the south side neighborhood in which it’s located appealed to the utility. To its credit, We Energies deeded the land to the city to be used as a park. A small but pretty green space on the edge of a ravine through which Mineral Creek flows, it is today well used and appreciated.

    Land at the corner of Jackson and Lake streets that is on the maybe-sell list, though separated from Veterans Park by the water filtration plant, is really a part of that park. It’s a shady green space with a wonderful view of the lake and the breakwater. No doubt, it would be a fine site for a bar and restaurant, but then the public would lose the view. And that is not an option.

    West Side Park also made Driscoll’s list. It is true the small park along West Grand Avenue is not used as much as it was when west siders gathered there for summer picnics complete with beer, brats, a band and a carnival, but the land was purchased by the members of the West Side Boosters Club and gifted to the city in 1936 expressly to be a park, and that generous intention deserves enduring respect.

    The too-much-parkland mindset seems to derive from the idea that government, as though it were a business, should not own unproductive land. The notion seems to afflict politicians at all levels of government.

    Two weeks ago, the United States Senate voted 51 to 49 to support an amendment to a non-binding budget resolution to sell all federal lands except parks and monuments. Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public land, wrote that the lands “constitute much of what’s left of the nation’s national and cultural heritage.”

    In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has proposed freezing all purchases of land for conservation by the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund until 2028, effectively ending the bipartisan program that has preserved thousands of acres of Wisconsin’s natural beauty over the past 25 years.

    These backward steps on conservation reflect a fundamental misjudgment of the American citizenry. Americans want the natural beauty of their country protected by their government.

    Since 1988, $71.7 billion has been authorized by voters in 43 states to conserve land. In Wisconsin, a poll conducted in February by Public Opinion Strategies, which describes itself as “the nation’s largest Republican pollster,” found that nearly 90% of Wisconsin voters believe the state should invest in conserving land, water and wildlife even when budgets are tight. The survey also found that nearly 9 in 10 voters support continued funding for Stewardship Fund land purchases.

    In Port Washington, the city government’s plan to sell the north slip land has been met with strong opposition from the public, and it’s not even a park. It’s just a parking lot, but it’s a parking lot with a lake view the public values.

    Trouble in Lake City? Maybe. But it’s not too many parks.

Streets are not just for cars and trucks PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 April 2015 19:48

Belgium should resist pressure to add parking to its new Main Street at the expense of space for sidewalks and trees

The Village of Belgium is about to get a new main street. It would be a shame if it were designed like an old main street, providing extravagant space for motor vehicles at the expense of the convenience of pedestrians and bicycle riders and community aesthetics.

    A preliminary plan presented at a public informational meeting last week avoids that mistake by eliminating parking spaces on the north side of the street to allow for wide sidewalks and a green terrace with space for abundant trees.

    Some of the citizens at the meeting, however,  called for changing the plan to include parking on both sides of the street for its entire length. Village officials should not let this happen.

     Small towns across the country have had to live for generations with main business streets designed in an era when parking space was considered sacred. Gradually it has dawned on communities that downtown street design must address much more than the needs of motor vehicles.

    Putting parking spaces on both sides of Belgium’s new Main Street would come at the expense of other space—space for walking and biking and trees—and would compromise the safety of the bike lanes that are required on both sides of the street.

    More is expected of the new street than to provide convenient parking and a quick drive through the heart of town. It must also be appealing for people who prefer to walk, with wide, shaded sidewalks and safe crosswalks.

    This is important for dwellers of Belgium—which has been acquiring new residents at a faster rate than other small villages in Ozaukee County—and for the growing number of visitors attracted to the community. With the Ozaukee Interurban Trail passing through the downtown and Harrington Beach State Park located just down the road, many of the visitors will be folks who appreciate a community whose main commercial street shows consideration for walkers and bikers.

    Being able to park within a few steps of one’s destination is hardly an inalienable right. On-street parking places are hard to find in many communities small and large. Drivers cope. Commerce goes on.

    A prettier downtown is one of the expected, and welcome, results of rebuilding streets that have aged beyond their useful lives, such as Belgium’s Main Street, and the village should be able to look forward to some satisfying aesthetic improvements.

    These include underground utility lines. There will no doubt be sticker shock, given the history of utility companies overcharging communities for burying the wires (ask Fredonia and Port Washington), but the village shouldn’t miss this opportunity to cleanse the sky over its main street of unsightly poles and wires.

    Village President Rich Howells’ comments at the meeting about plans to plant trees in the green terrace that will be created (assuming north-side parking is not added) were encouraging.

    On the other hand, comments about trees by the spokesman for the company retained as the design consultant for the street project were disconcerting. Project manager Tom Lanser said the existing trees along the street would have to be cut down because they will likely die soon due to the stress of the street construction.

    Mature trees are too precious to be cut down on the say-so of a highway builder. That decision should only be made by a certified arborist. Surely some of the stately trees along Main Street can be saved.

    Saving some trees makes sense. Saving parking places that usurp space needed for trees and sidewalks doesn’t.

Keep the market free – no tax money for Bucks PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 25 March 2015 19:42

The Milwaukee Bucks NBA franchise is a profitable business that should not expect charity from taxpayers in funding a new arena

The taxpayers of Wisconsin should pay a large part of the cost of a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

    That is an utterly absurd statement, yet a number of people, including the governor, state legislators, officials and business leaders of Milwaukee and the owners of the Bucks are repeating it with no joke intended.

    There are good reasons it should be taken as a joke:

    The Milwaukee Bucks National Basketball Association franchise is a private, for-profit business, with emphasis on the word “profit.” In less than a year, the team’s new owners have already made $50 million on their investment. They bought the franchise for $550 million; today it’s worth $600 million, according to Forbes magazine.

    The team’s owners have offered to pay only $150 million of the estimated $500 million cost of a new arena. Lack of the means to pay for the building in which to operate their business is not the reason. Among the wealthy group of investors who own the Bucks are two hedge-fund billionaires, Jamie Dinan and Marc Lasry, who are on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans, with net worths of $2.4 billion and $1.9 billion respectively.

    Politicians who invoke the sanctity of the free market when justifying government cutbacks are saying that in this case it’s perfectly all right for government to interfere in the market and have taxpayers subsidize the arena that the Bucks’ free-market-capitalist owners need for their business.

    These include Gov. Scott Walker, who has proposed that the state borrow $220 million to help pay for the arena, and legislators who think that will amount to a bit too much debt, but are suggesting that the state will somehow be able to come up with at least $100 million.

    Yes, this sounds like a joke, but no one is laughing because cities and states across the country have fallen for it, leaving taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars. Since 1985, more than $17 billion has been raised with tax-exempt bonds—the kind Gov. Walker has proposed issuing—to subsidize professional sports facilities.

    Investors who buy the bonds don’t pay taxes on the interest they receive, but taxpayers have to pay the interest and repay the principal. With the tax-exempt bonds, not just local taxpayers, but all American taxpayers, end up subsidizing the facilities. The Treasury Department says bonds for sports facilities have cost the federal government $542 million in the past decade, and is proposing barring their use.

    In its proposal, the department said funding pro stadiums and arenas with tax-exempt bonds has “shifted more of the costs and risks from the private owners to local residents and taxpayers in general.”

    Walker’s proposal calls for paying the bonds’ interest and principal with income tax revenue paid to the state by NBA players. This doesn’t make the subsidy some sort of free money—the players’ income tax payments diverted to the arena would be revenue the state would not have to support services for its citizens.

    The whole exercise is based on the premise that if the Bucks don’t get a new arena, they’ll leave Milwaukee, dealing an economic blow to the city and the state.

    The premise might be half valid. The NBA has threatened to take over the team and pull it out of Wisconsin if a new arena isn’t built. That could happen. The NBA is powerful enough to be ruthless. It thrives on television revenue. If Milwaukee doesn’t come through with a new venue, it would be happy to shop the Bucks around for a bigger market.

    The part about the big blow to the economy, however, is dubious.

    In study after study, economists agree government subsidies for sports do not pay off in economic benefit. One of them, Dennis Coates, a University of Maryland economist who specializes in the pro sports business, put it succinctly to the Wall Street Journal: By subsidizing sports facilities “you’re not going to get income growth; you’re not going to get tax growth; you’re not going to get employment growth.”

    We don’t blame the power structure of Milwaukee for pushing for a new arena. It would be a shame if the Bucks left town, an affront to the city’s pride and prestige and an insult to the fans who have supported the team through thick and thin for decades.

    But preventing that is not the responsibility of taxpayers. It is the responsibility of some of Milwaukee’s newest corporate citizens, the owners of the Bucks.

    It’s time for these masters of the financial universe, these bold investment buccaneers, to exercise the prerogatives of the free market and pay for the building that houses their business—like the rest of the folks competing in the free market do.

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