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Mum’s the word PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 21 September 2016 19:38

City officials knew about the most important happening in their contentious effort to turn Port Washington lakefront land into a commercial building site for three weeks before it was revealed in this newspaper, but said not a word about it to the public.

The fact that Christopher Long had informed the city government in late August that he was abandoning his attempt to buy a marina parking lot for an entertainment complex called the Blues Factory was information the public had a right to know.

Instead of sharing the information about this remarkable turn of events with the citizens of Port Washington—who, after all, are the owners of the marina land—the mayor, aldermen, city administrator and city attorney kept it as their secret.

The public finally learned about it in last week’s Ozaukee Press. It was Christopher Long, not city officials, who informed the Press he had withdrawn from the project. 

In a Sept. 13 email to this newspaper, Long not only confirmed he was giving up his quest, he revealed more information about the shaky status of the Blues Factory than had anyone in the city government when he wrote he was pulling out because “there remains a gap that must be bridged” in securing financing for the project.

The decision casts significant doubt on the viability of the proposed development. Highly respected as a Madison-area community project consultant, Long was the driving force of the development he named the Blues Factory. He conceived the idea of a Paramount Music-themed complex and was its primary planner and most articulate and persuasive advocate. If he couldn’t convince investors and lenders to commit to the project, it begs the question—who could?

It is understandable that for officials who have touted the Blues Factory as a surefire generator of “catalytic” economic development, Long’s withdrawal based on the inability to find financing to qualify for a generous taxpayer subsidy to buy a prime piece of public lakefront land is embarrassing. Embarrassment, however, is not a valid excuse for secrecy. 

Nor is it grounds for holding closed Common Council sessions to discuss the Blues Factory. The withholding of information about Long’s departure was in keeping with the city government’s modus operandi of revealing as little as possible to the public. To date, the council has held nine closed sessions concerning the development.

This frequency of closed meetings, rarely seen in any Wisconsin municipality, flouts the ethic embodied in the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law as set forth in the statute’s very first paragraph, which holds that “it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with  the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”

In justifying excluding the public, officials have repeatedly cited an exemption to the open meetings law when “competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.”

The Open Meetings Law compliance guideline for officials written by former Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen warns against exploiting the broad language of the exemption in the manner evident in the Port Washington city hall. “Mere inconvenience, delay, embarrassment, frustration or even speculation as to the probability of success would be an insufficient basis to close a meeting,” Van Hollen wrote. 

During the period in which city officials, but not the public, were aware that Long had given up on the Blues Factory, Port Washington developer Gertjan van den Broek was somehow persuaded to take the lead in the development. Van den Broek had been associated with the Blues Factory as a Port Washington connection to the project, but was not active in its planning or promotion. Last week he was granted a privilege not available to his fellow taxpayers—entrée to the most recent closed council session, where it was decided to extend the deadline to provide proof of financing indefinitely.

The persistence of the council, egged on by the development’s cheerleader in chief, Mayor Tom Mlada, in pushing to sell lakefront land for the Blues Factory against a wave of public opposition has clearly undermined confidence in the city government, an unfortunate state of affairs made worse by keeping the people of Port Washington in the dark about key details of the project.

More of the same is all but guaranteed by the city officials’ initial response to the departure of the development’s creator, which has been to dig in deeper. The response that would serve the community far better would be for the aldermen of the Common Council to rise above that obdurate mindset and put an end to city participation in the Blues Factory venture—and do it openly in full public view.

 
Keeping the Blues Factory on life support PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 14 September 2016 19:28

At what point does the Blues Factory debacle become a civic embarrassment?

That point may already have been reached. If so, it occurred at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7, when Port Washington aldermen returned to the council chamber after a two-hour closed session and voted not to hold the developer of the proposed lakefront entertainment complex accountable for the latest missed deadline.

With its decision to give the developer an indefinite amount of additional time to meet the terms of an agreement requiring proof of financing, the Common Council all but admitted that the three deadlines that have come and gone without consequences were for appearances only and not to be taken seriously.

Instead of a new deadline, the Blues Factory was given an oxymoron—an indefinite deadline.

The decision had the look of a desperate attempt to keep the development on life support in the face of strong opposition in the community and doubts about its financial underpinnings.

Those doubts were exacerbated by the announcement Tuesday by Christopher Long that he is severing ties with the Blues Factory. Long is the Madison-area business consultant and blues music aficionado who conceived the Blues Factory idea and was its principal developer and passionate advocate. In withdrawing from the project, he cited “gaps that must be bridged” to meet city requirements.

The developer’s failure to abide by June, August and September deadlines came in spite of a generous incentive to meet the city’s terms—a promise of a $1 million loan from taxpayers. 

In May, the council agreed to provide the million-dollar subsidy through tax incremental financing and allow some of it to be used to buy publicly owned land adjacent to the marina for the Blues Factory provided the project had obtained $250,000 in private equity investment and a loan for $5.5 million.

The public was excluded from the Blues Factory discussion at last week’s Common Council meeting (as it has been from numerous other meetings on the subject), and officials did not reveal whether any progress had been made toward meeting the financial requirements.

The council’s current willingness to grant serial delays contrasts with the uncommon speed with which the mayor and aldermen pushed the Blues Factory initiative early on. Fast action was essential, they said then, because the developer needed to have the complex open by April 2017 to benefit from promoting the 100th anniversary of Paramount Records. That schedule proved to be as illusory as the missed deadlines.

By refusing to enforce its own deadlines, the council failed to take advantage of an opportunity to put a graceful end to the controversy it created with its insistence on selling the marina land for commercial development regardless of broad, enduring public opposition.

That opportunity was the offer by three marina district land owners, led by Ansay Development Corp., to buy the north slip parking lot earmarked for the Blues Factory for $250,000 in cash and turn it into public greenspace.

The offer addresses the conviction that drives opposition to the Blues Factory—that public lakefront land should not be used for buildings that block or impede visual and physical access to the water.

The city rushed headlong into the Blues Factory adventure without a comprehensive plan for marina district development. The proposal by Ansay and the other landowners attempts to fill that void with an outline that not only saves the north slip land for the public, but calls for keeping large buildings back from the water.

The plan in its present form may not be the ultimate answer, but it commands credibility by emphasizing a fundamental truth recognized by enlightened waterfront communities everywhere: When you’re gifted with proximity to a beautiful body of water, you don’t build to the water’s edge—especially on public land.

The landowners’ offer comes with opportunities for compromise, including the possibility of an alternative site for the Blues Factory. Unfortunately, when dealing with the north slip land, city officials have consistently chosen a fortress mentality over compromise.

Meanwhile, the image of elected representatives repeatedly going the extra mile for a developer as they gamble the public’s land and tax money on a risky bet suggests greater concern for the developer than for the more than 1,000 citizens who signed petitions against the land sale and others who expressed their opposition with lawn signs and letters to the editor and by patiently waiting at public meetings to voice their opposition. 

This surely disappoints or angers some residents. Others might just be embarrassed for their city.

 
Government work worth a cheer PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 07 September 2016 17:59

Disgruntlement reigns over the land. Significant numbers of Americans are disappointed, angry or even outraged over what they see as the failure of their government and other institutions to do enough to give them the opportunities they deserve to make their lives better. It’s a recurrent theme in this year’s bitterly fought presidential election race.

People who read the remarkable news about a new nature preserve in last week’s Ozaukee Press should be feeling better about those institutions. The news was that four levels of government and a nonprofit organization are giving the public, and in particular the people of Ozaukee County, a gift of everlasting value that will enhance the quality of the lives that make use of the gift, lives here today, and those of future generations.

The gift is 102 acres of lakeshore land that will be protected from development and preserved for use by the public. The gift was given by the governments of the United States, the State of Wisconsin, Ozaukee County and the City of Port Washington and the Ozaukee-Washington Land Trust.

The most remarkable part of the news was that no local tax money will be needed to create what will be called the Clay Bluff/Cedar Gorge Nature Preserve. The land will be paid for by the federal government through a $1 million NOAA grant channeled through Wisconsin’s Coastal Management Program and by the state with a $1 million grant from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. 

Both the county and the city had committed to paying a significant part of the cost. That won’t be needed now, but their commitment was a key factor in making the preserve a reality. The overall driving force, without which the initiative could not have been successful, was the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, whose efforts facilitated the generous grants.

The Land Trust will use grant money to purchase the land. It will then deed it to Ozaukee County to be part of its park system, the same type of partnership that gave the public the Lion’s Den Nature Preserve with its dramatic landscape above the lakeshore a short distance south of the new preserve.

To fully appreciate the value of protecting one of the last undeveloped tracts of land on the Lake Michigan shore in southeast Wisconsin for public use, consider what might have been. The land was part of the 227-acres of Town of Grafton farmland that was annexed by the City of Port Washington in 1995 for a massive subdivision that would have taken possession of the lake bluffs, beaches and forested gorge and ravines for the enjoyment of those who could afford to buy the development’s luxury homes or to stay at its resort hotel.

This egregious example of urban sprawl was undone by the financial collapse of the would-be developer—a misfortune for the company known as VK, a blessing for the public.

The nature preserve’s positive impact includes its role as the linchpin of a 73-home development designed with environmental sensitivity and set back from the lake bluff to be called Cedar Vineyard in recognition of the vineyard that will be established nearby. 

A few City of Port Washington officials have been heard to complain that there is too much parkland in the city. But there are no complaints about the sprawling Clay Bluff park, for it is an essential element of the salvation of the VK annexation.

As an additional bonus, nature preserve fees charged to Cedar Vineyard homeowners will pay for maintenance of the preserve by the county.

Overall, there is so much to benefit the public in the creation of the Clay Bluff/Cedar Gorge Nature Preserve that even folks who tend to see the glass half empty when it comes to the performance of their government may want to raise that glass and give a cheer.

 
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