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Racine arts district’s progress depends on new mayor

Workers from Katt Construction Corp., Racine, lift drywall into a building under renovation in Racine's Uptown neighborhood Monday. City plans call for an arts district in Uptown, but those plans may change now that Gary Becker is no longer mayor. Becker was the lead advocate for the arts district.  The Daily Reporter Photo by Dustin Block

Workers from Katt Construction Corp., Racine, lift drywall into a building under renovation in Racine's Uptown neighborhood Monday. City plans call for an arts district in Uptown, but those plans may change now that Gary Becker is no longer mayor. Becker was the lead advocate for the arts district.The Daily Reporter Photo by Dustin Block

Dustin Block
dustin.block@dailyreporter.com

The waves created by Racine Mayor Gary Becker’s January arrest are threatening to overturn a plan to rebuild a rundown neighborhood into an arts district.

Becker was a lead advocate of the “Heart of the Arts” district in Racine’s Uptown neighborhood. On his watch, the city bought and agreed to renovate two buildings on a four-block section of Washington Avenue.

Johnson Bank, Racine, also agreed to give favorable loans to people who bought buildings in the district. S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., Racine, donated $500,000 for improvements to the area, and a mosaic artist created two murals on the sides of buildings.

But Becker’s arrest in an online sex sting might derail the project, according to people close to the project.

“The potential value lies heavily in the hands of who the next mayor is,” said Mark Gregory, a Racine real estate agent from First Weber Group Inc. who is selling two buildings in the district. “It’s their decision to keep it moving forward.”

For now, the city is moving forward with the arts district plan, said City Development Director Brian O’Connell. Katt Construction Corp., Racine, was renovating a two-story building Monday to create apartments for an artist to live upstairs with a studio or gallery on the ground floor. The city is planning a similar renovation for another building, O’Connell said.

He said the fact that Becker has been charged with soliciting sex from a minor and possession of child pornography has not slowed or changed the direction of work planned for the district.

“The project made sense to have an advocate like Mayor Becker,” O’Connell said, “but we have the resources to move forward.”

The project also has the Racine Common Council’s support, said Kristin Niemiec, commercial corridor specialist for the Racine Economic Development Corp. The council passed the arts district plan in 2005.

But plans for the district have “totally failed,” according to Pete Karas, one of 11 mayoral candidates seeking to replace Becker in the April 7 primary election. No artists have moved to the area despite tens of thousands of dollars in city investment, he said.

Karas said it was “ludicrous” to think the city could use buildings to attract outside artists. City money instead should be spent on supporting local artists and businesses already invested in Racine, he said.

“Any development in the area has to be organic,” Karas said.

Niemiec said the down economy has slowed progress in the arts district. The plan now is to finish work on the city-owned buildings and make improvements that will draw in investors once the recession passes.

“We’re hoping to the lay the groundwork,” Niemiec said, “so when the economy does turn, we’ll hit the ground running.”

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