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Milwaukee closes in on new project rules

Sean Ryan

Supporters of hiring and wage requirements for Milwaukee construction projects say they see a way to counter the city’s rising unemployment and help union companies compete for private projects.

But detractors in the development and construction industry say the proposed rules, especially a prevailing-wage requirement, will result in fewer projects and fewer jobs in the city.

The proposal would change hiring and contracting requirements on Milwaukee Public Works projects and private developments that receive more than $1 million from the city. The rules would give Milwaukee-based companies preference when bidding for public works projects. They would require city residents perform 40 percent of hours worked on projects. They also would increase the emerging-business-enterprise requirement on projects from 18 to 25 percent.

The most controversial portion of the ordinance requires developers pay prevailing wages when their projects receive more than $1 million from the city. Developers and Realtors said the added cost of higher wages would kill some projects.

“There is nobody, when they are putting together a project, that doesn’t look at the cost,” said Jim Villa, president of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin.

Lyle Balistreri, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, said he does not believe developers will shun Milwaukee if it approves the new requirements.

“People are going to go on with their lives,” he said.

John Schmitt, business manager for Laborers Local 113, said a prevailing wage requirement means contractors signatory to Local 113 will get more projects.

“It’s difficult on housing projects to compete with contractors that don’t have to pay prevailing wage,” he said.

There will be fewer projects and jobs for builders in Milwaukee if the city approves the ordinance, warned Greg Uhen, president of Eppstein Uhen Architects Inc., Milwaukee.

“My concern is that it will reduce the amount of opportunities that first even come to the city,” he said. “We’ll have fewer projects and fewer jobs will be created out of it. That’s just the simple fact.”

Mayor Tom Barrett said his office researched other U.S. cities that require prevailing wages for projects receiving public money, and there was no indication the wage mandate drives away business or projects.

Barrett said he will sign the proposal if the Common Council approves it following a Tuesday morning vote.

“This is not a situation where Milwaukee would become an island,” he said.

Marvin Pratt, former Milwaukee Common Council president and mayor, said the proposed $77 million Eco-Square mixed-use project in the Park East corridor would satisfy the proposed prevailing wage and local hiring requirements. Fair Market Development Co. LLC, Milwaukee, proposed the project Feb. 19, in response to a Milwaukee County request for development proposals for the Park East property.

Pratt, a project consultant, said Eco-Square demonstrates private developers can satisfy the proposed requirements.

“They said, ‘No sweat,’ they can do the ordinance,” Pratt said.

The proposal’s author, Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, said other developers would step up to build in Milwaukee if opponents of the ordinance decide to avoid the city.

“No one said it was going to be easy,” he said. “It is by its nature a difficult task to do. However, they stand to benefit tremendously if they can make it work.”

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