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Milwaukee aldermen eye clock in tenant search

(File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Strip club owner Jon Ferraro wants to open a business at 1118 N. Fourth St., Milwaukee. Milwaukee aldermen warned Wednesday the clock is ticking to find another tenant. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee aldermen warned the Department of City Development on Wednesday that they are running out of patience with a prolonged tenant search for a vacant downtown property.

If a tenant is not found soon, the aldermen threatened, the Common Council might vote on awarding the lease to a businessman who wants to open a strip club in the city-owned commercial space at 1118 N. Fourth St.

The property has been vacant for more than a year, but the parking garage in the same structure is open. The DCD in November received two proposals for the space: the strip club and a combined radio station and restaurant.

The strip club, proposed by Jon Ferraro, was the more lucrative for the city, but officials said they were concerned about being a landlord to that type of establishment. Ferraro has proposed a 30-year lease at $14.27 per square foot and more than $1 million in renovations. He operates clubs in Milwaukee, Middleton and Juneau.

The Common Council voted in December to give the DCD until March to solicit more proposals.

But the DCD still has not found an alternative to the first two proposals. The city has not officially rejected the strip club or the radio station and restaurant.

Alderman Joe Davis Sr. said he is getting tired of waiting. It is hypocritical to oppose granting Ferraro the lease, Davis said, without having a better offer, although he said he shares his colleagues’ concerns about a strip club in a city-owned building.

“The city might have to face honoring the proposal that’s on the table,” he said, “and if we are in that position, it’s nobody’s fault but ours.”

When the Common Council gave the DCD the extension, Davis said, he expected the department to find an alternative proposal. He said he put the department’s economic development specialist in touch with a Chicago restaurant owner interested in expanding to the Milwaukee area. Davis said that was the last he heard about it.

“That’s where I as an alderman,” he said, “become very discouraged about whether we would find a tenant.”

The city contacted the restaurant owner, DCD spokesman Jeff Fleming said, and never heard back. He disagreed with the characterization that the DCD has been lazy in seeking tenants.

In fact, Fleming said, the city’s search for a new tenant has been more proactive than normal, including enlisting the help of Milwaukee Downtown, one of the city’s business improvement districts.

Steve Looft, Milwaukee Downtown’s economic development director, said the district does not want the strip club in the Fourth Street building. The space is across the street from the BMO Harris Bradley Center and near other downtown venues, he said, so it contributes to the gateway effect the area has on many visitors.

“Ideally,” Looft said, “you’d like to also see something that promotes and casts downtown Milwaukee to visitors in the best light.”

The commercial space has attached, indoor parking, he said, which is a rare amenity. But the property also has some challenges, Looft said, that have contributed to the struggle to attract a tenant.

At about 8,400 square feet, the space is too large for many types of tenants, he said. The previous tenant was a restaurant, so an office user would have to pay for renovations. Plus, Looft said, potential office tenants might not like the lack of privacy.

“It’s a bit of a fishbowl,” he said, “relative to Fourth Street.”

Fleming said the DCD will expand its marketing efforts further. Technically, the department does not need Common Council approval to continue marketing, and the DCD issued a request for qualifications Tuesday seeking a broker to list the space. Responses are due April 8.

But Alderman Robert Bauman, whose district includes the site, said the Common Council might not wait for the DCD. Bauman is chairman of the Public Works Committee and said he wants monthly updates from DCD.

“Part of this,” he said, “is to, just to keep their feet to the fire.”

If those updates are unsatisfactory, Bauman said, aldermen could vote on Ferraro’s proposal.

“At some point, you’ve got to say, ‘Are we going to let this stay vacant forever?’” he said. “Are we really that offended?”

About Beth Kevit

Beth Kevit is the Milwaukee city beat reporter and also covers real estate. She can be reached at [email protected] or 414-225-1820.

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