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Editorial: Officials should choose words carefully for lakefront project

On Monday, as they announced a massive road project, top officials from the state, Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee were in a giddy mood.

They should have been in the subjunctive mood.

But there was hardly an “if” and nary a “would” to be found. As any ardent grammarian knows, the subjunctive introduces uncertainty.

Instead, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele performed a grammatical sleight of tongue in unveiling the Lakefront Gateway Project. They slipped the indicative “will” into their prepared statements and watched it multiply.

“It is fair to estimate that hundreds of workers will be part of the construction we are announcing today,” according to Barrett’s prepared remarks. “And the work they will do sets the stage for hundreds of permanent jobs that will be located nearby in the coming years.”

The gateway project will include extending Lincoln Memorial Drive, transforming Clybourn Street into a two-way boulevard and moving two Interstate 794 ramps.

It will open 3 acres of Milwaukee County-owned land and possibly 20 acres of privately owned property for development in and near the city’s Historic Third Ward.

The city will contribute $18 million to the project.

But reality shouts for a “would” followed by this “if” clause: if the Common Council and the independent Joint Review Board, made up of representatives from various tax-collecting entities throughout the city, approve a tax incremental financing district for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.’s project about three blocks from the proposed roadwork.

The company wants to demolish its downtown offices and construct a 35-story, $300 million building. The city wants to create a TIF district for the project that would let Northwestern Mutual pay only 30 percent of the annual property taxes on the new building until the company recoups $48 million.

The city then would back its $18 million in bonding for the gateway project with money from Northwestern Mutual’s property-tax payments.

Notice how “would” softens the message, leaving elbowroom for doubt.

The shift to “will” was no accident. It was shrewd political strategy.

By announcing the project before the TIF proposal even made it to the Common Council, the politicians who ran that press conference took control of the message. They told people the project will happen and tried to bully anyone who might disagree.

There could be concerns that the $18 million should be used for police, fire or other city services, as the spirit, if not the law, of TIFs dictates. There could be questions about whether it is appropriate to use TIF money from an unrelated project.

But those who ask such questions now must consider the subjunctive.

If they were to challenge the city’s TIF plan, they would struggle to be heard over the self-congratulatory din.

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