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Unions rally for shot at Moderne

Construction worker Robert Baker holds a sign Tuesday during Milwaukee’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee meeting at City Hall supporting the union jobs likely to accompany approval of a loan for the Moderne condo and apartment project. The committee voted unanimously to delay a decision on the loan until Nov. 3. Photo by Dustin Safranek

Construction worker Robert Baker holds a sign Tuesday during Milwaukee’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee meeting at City Hall supporting the union jobs likely to accompany approval of a loan for the Moderne condo and apartment project. The committee voted unanimously to delay a decision on the loan until Nov. 3. Photo by Dustin Safranek

Sean Ryan
sean.ryan@dailyreporter.com

Milwaukee native Robert Baker, wearing a hard hat with union stickers from four states, went to City Hall on Tuesday to lobby for a job on the Moderne condo and apartment project.

“The majority of the construction workers at the city have been waiting for the city and the county to stop sitting on their hands,” said Baker, an elevator constructor.

Baker joined Milwaukee-area union business representatives and workers who packed a Milwaukee Common Council hearing room to encourage the city to loan money to the Moderne project (PDF). Baker, who spent the past two years chasing work in New Jersey, Florida, North Carolina and Las Vegas before returning to Milwaukee, has been unemployed since July.

Now, he will have to wait longer before getting a job.

The city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee on Tuesday voted unanimously to delay until Nov. 3 a decision on the loan deal (PDF). In the interim, the deal will be revised to include more financial protection for the city and stronger local-worker hiring requirements.

“It’s very disturbing to me that you can’t come to some sort of resolve with this thing and move the project along because time is of the essence,” said Lyle Balistreri, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, shortly before the vote. “Well, Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”

Balistreri, Baker and the others spent most of their day at City Hall to support a city loan to the $55.2 million Moderne high-rise, which will have 203 apartments, 14 condominiums and retail space. The project on the corner of Old World Third Street and Juneau Avenue will be financed through a loan from the AFL-CIO and will use union construction workers. The $41.4 million loan from the AFL-CIO will be guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But there is debate over whether the city should loan money to private apartment and condominium projects downtown. The argument was prompted by a city comptroller letter (PDF) warning aldermen that the planned $9.3 million Moderne loan, which primarily would be paid back through the sale of condominiums in the building, is a risky prospect.

“This is not the ideal market,” said City Comptroller W. Martin Morics. “I don’t know that it is going to be the ideal market in two years.”

Alderman Robert Bauman said city aldermen cannot ignore the warning and must work more protective language into the loan deal. Bauman chided representatives from the Department of City Development and development team for portraying the loan as a low-risk venture. He said the question is whether the benefit of jobs and tax base is worth the risk the city inherits with the loan.

“It’s a stimulus exercise,” Bauman said. “This is basically a stimulus initiative.”

The city must take this risk or face the prospect of more residents without jobs and more skilled construction workers traveling elsewhere for work, said Ricardo Gutierrez, business representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494 in Milwaukee. Beyond the jobs it would create, Gutierrez said, the project will provide housing in the Park East area and encourage other developments in the area.

Baker said balancing risk against reward on the Moderne is an easy decision for him, but he asked that the city increase the project requirements to hire workers who live in Milwaukee.

“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “For the immediate, right-this-minute, what it’s going to do is it’s going to get your people working.”

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