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Milwaukee targets contractor for city site

By Sean Ryan

An attempt to use a city property to lure a construction company to Milwaukee must overcome the business trends that push contractors away.

A Milwaukee Department of Public Works proposal would free up a 2-acre lot at West Holt Avenue and South 21st Street to be sold to a private company. The site, which DPW’s forestry crews use, is ideal for a contractor, said Preston Cole, Milwaukee DPW director of operations.

“That facility would be perfect for any landscaping company,” he said, “because that’s what it’s for.”

But builders started heading west out of the city in the 1960s and 1970s when large manufacturers, and the mechanical and underground utility projects they generated, started to close, said Richard Wanta, executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association. Now, development is spread across the region, rather than concentrated in central Milwaukee, he said.

Milwaukee last year started giving Milwaukee-based companies a 5 percent bidding preference on city public works contracts. As to the prospect the bidding preference might add a selling point to the DPW site, Cole said “whatever we can do to bring business into Milwaukee is great.”

The historic trend has been for builders to move from Milwaukee to the suburbs, where land is cheaper and freeway access is easier, said Jeffrey Beiriger, executive director of the American Subcontractors Association of Wisconsin.

“As far as the contractors’ perspective,” he said, “I haven’t seen a whole lot of movement into the city.”

Alex Runner, staff assistant to Common Council president Willie Hines, dismissed the idea Milwaukee presents greater transportation challenges than neighboring communities. Easy access to rail and highways attracts businesses to the city, he said.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to both,” Runner said of Milwaukee and its neighboring communities, “but we’re a far cry from saying the sky is falling or from saying industry has moved out of Milwaukee.”

The city still is trying to attract heavy industrial businesses, including builders, Runner said. Hines’ office, for example, worked with the Penebaker Enterprises LLC, a roofing contractor, to move the company to a site near North Avenue and out of Glendale, Runner said.

To make it easier for bigger companies to move into Milwaukee, the city has assembled large industrial sites — such as the 84-acre former Tower Automotive plant and Menomonee Valley Industrial Center — that are suitable for businesses that use a lot of trucks.

“The message we want to send,” Runner said, “is the city is willing to partner with and work with those contractors.”

Cole said the DPW property, which would not hit the market until after 2011, has advantages over other city sites. The site shares a border with a junkyard, he said, and years of city trucks driving through the area mean there should be no noise complaints.

“You don’t have an issue with competing use,” Cole said, “or angry neighbors.”

The department plans to spend $2.8 million renovating a different building in late 2011 or 2012 so city forestry crews can move. The Holt property is assessed at $1 million, and the city anticipates getting that much for the lot, Cole said.

But there are many reasons why contractors tend of set up shop in the suburbs, Wanta said. The property tax rates are cheaper in communities around Milwaukee, he said, and there are fewer concerns about people breaking onto a property and vandalizing equipment, he said.

“It might be helpful to some smaller contractor who sees Milwaukee as an exclusive market,” Wanta said of the 2-acre site. “And who would that be? Maybe a landscaper or a plumber.”

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