Milwaukee County is turning to developers to unload underused buildings that are eating up public money.
County staff members this month are working on a request for proposals from developers to gauge interest in buying county buildings, such as the large City Campus building at 27th and Wells streets in Milwaukee.
The plan is to phrase the RFP as broadly as possible to give the market room to offer proposals that could result in lower operating costs for the county, said Jerome Heer, county director of audits.
Those proposals could include companies offering new building space for county offices or companies buying county buildings and leasing the space back to county departments, he said.
“At the end of the day, it all may be status quo,” Heer said. “But if it is status quo, we do have to make some decision on the City Campus.”
The City Campus complex, which the county bought in 1990 with plans to convert the structure into a mental health hospital, costs $2 million a year to operate and maintain, said Joe Sanfelippo, Milwaukee County supervisor. The 154,000-square-foot City Campus now is used only as office space for 125 county employees who occupy 21,000 square feet in the building.
Sanfelippo said the annual cost of owning the building is much too high.
“Even if we took the building and gave it away,” he said, “we’re going to save $2 million a year.”
With county staff members working on an RFP to be released later this month, Sanfelippo said, he’s willing to make a generous offer to a developer just so the county can unload the building. He said he does not want to offer City Campus for free, but the county could benefit by partnering with a developer to build affordable housing or apartments for people with disabilities.
“If somebody steps forward and says, ‘We can give you $1 million, but in return we need your help with X, Y and Z,”’ Sanfelippo said, “we need to very carefully consider that.”
If the development market shows no interest in buying the City Campus building, Heer said, the county could at least consider paying for energy-efficiency upgrades to lower the heating and electrical costs.
Beyond the City Campus building, the county’s RFP also will ask companies to offer ideas for county departments that occupy leased space in the Henry Reuss Federal Plaza on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee, Heer said. The county spends $750,000 annually leasing space in the building for the Department of Aging, and the lease expires this year.
Sanfelippo said the Reuss building lease is a good opportunity for the county to save money, but the City Campus remains the largest drain on the county.
“The long and short of it,” he said, “is the county never should have bought this building.”