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State might tie local support to RFPs

Paul Snyder
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Companies that propose projects for the state might soon be responsible for drumming up local support to shield Wisconsin Building Commission members from neighborhood backlash.

“I think we should look at putting into (requests for proposals) that developers have the responsibility to engage local communities,” said David Helbach, administrator in the state Department of Administration’s Division of State Facilities and commission secretary. “Usually we react at the Building Commission, and it might be nice to have a bit more work done upfront.”

Helbach’s suggestion stems from Milwaukee-based C.H. Coakley & Co.’s decision to withdraw its bid to move a state Department of Health Services building to North King Drive in Milwaukee. The state began accepting proposals such as Coakley’s after a federal investigation found the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center on Vliet Street in Milwaukee is not up to code, Helbach said.

Coakley and Fond du Lac-based C.D. Smith Construction Inc. proposed moving the state operation to an empty store on King Drive. But after the state accepted the proposal, store neighbors and Milwaukee City Council members opposed the project.

In a letter last week to commission members, Coakley explained its withdrawal as a move made  out of respect for local reaction. Helbach said the state now likely will work with Milwaukee County to upgrade the Marcia P. Coggs building.

Mike Coakley, managing partner with Coakley, said the state should not be blamed for the failed proposal.

“All politics is local,” he said. “We had an obligation to work with the community on this.”

And companies are at a disadvantage because they do not have all the facts to present to neighbors and local governments, said Gov. Jim Doyle, a commission member. He said it’s hard to know which way community support will go until the reality of a project sets in, so it is challenging to nail down project backing based only on a proposal.

Coakley’s proposal is not the first to fall under the pressure of local opposition, Helbach said. It’s a problem, he said, and putting the onus on the developer to take care of local politics before the proposal reaches the commission could be a solution.

“We’re not going to do anything fast,” he said. “I just think we need to stop taking local concerns in after the fact.”

But requiring developers to get local support may be a tall order, said Chris Laurent, vice president of operations for residential developer MSP Real Estate Inc., which is based in Minneapolis and has an office in Monona. Laurent has worked on development projects in many communities, he said, and most developers already try to get local support.

“Being a good neighbor is just good policy,” he said. “You owe it to your neighbors to hold conversations about projects. That’s just good business practice. To mandate it might be a bit draconian.”

Coakley agreed, calling community support “a moving target.”

“We thought this would be received in a positive light,” he said. “Our job is to put everything out there.”

It’s not getting out there enough, said Helbach, who said he is tired of defending state projects at hostile public hearings.

“I don’t necessarily like being the one that 150 people yell at because they feel they weren’t listened to by the developer,” he said. “I’m too old for that.”

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