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Oak Creek preps for population growth

By Sean Ryan

Population projections for the next 20 years are fueling the design of a new Oak Creek City Hall and library.

But numbers that exist only on a piece of paper are not enough to justify the very real $20 million the city would spend on the project, according to a community group calling for a smaller building that can be expanded to match the needs of the city’s population, should it grow.

“It all depends on what the times are, and nobody can predict that,” said Mark Verhalen, president of Oak Creek Citizen Action and a former member of the city’s Common Council.

The existing City Hall is neither large enough to properly serve the city’s population of about 35,000, nor is it modern enough to accommodate new electrical and computer technology, said City Administrator Patrick DeGrave. The new building, which the Oak Creek Common Council will consider Tuesday, would offer enough space to meet the city’s needs into the mid-2030s, he said.

The building would be large enough to serve a population of about 40,000, DeGrave said. City planners, he said, chose not to shoot for the moon with a building to serve 60,000 people, which is the maximum, according to planners, Oak Creek could reach with its available land.

“We don’t want to put the money in today to make it a 100-year or a 70-year building,” DeGrave said.

Oak Creek government has been based in the existing City Hall building since before Oak Creek became a city in 1955. Back then, Oak Creek’s population growth wasn’t such a big topic, said Elroy Honadel, president of the Oak Creek Historical Society and former Oak Creek mayor.

“We all expected the city to grow,” he said, “and it didn’t grow as fast as expected.”

DeGrave said the city will borrow money to pay for the new building and will pay off the debt with money from We Energies, which runs a power plant in Oak Creek and, as such, must pay the city about $3 million in the next 20 years. The city does not need population growth to generate taxes to pay for the project, he said.

The bonds used to pay for the project will be paid off in 20 years, DeGrave said, so it makes sense to design a building that will be useful for the same amount of time.

But the issue, Verhalen argues, is not whether the city can afford the project; it’s whether the city needs it. Instead of spending the money from We Energies on bigger buildings, Oak Creek should spend it on core services, such as new roads and more police and firefighters.

Verhalen, a longtime Oak Creek resident, said there’s no way to predict Oak Creek’s population growth, considering there are not as many people as expected living in the city now.

“We’re still farming here a little bit,” he said. “My family goes back here 100 years, so we’ve seen everything in Oak Creek that there is to see, and when I graduated high school in 1974, the population of Oak Creek was about 13,000.”

A study the city commissioned in the 1960s predicted Oak Creek would have 40,000 residents by 1975, said Honadel, who was the city’s mayor in the early 1970s. Although predictions overshot reality, he said, the city probably will add another 10,000 people in the next 20 years and eventually top the 60,000 mark.

“I don’t think it’ll look too much different than it does now,” he said of the Oak Creek of the 2030s. “I think we’ll have a new City Hall by then.”

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