Developers might have been given little time to submit proposals for a long-planned reconstruction of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation headquarters on Madison’s west side, but Gov. Scott Walker’s administration had hinted at its intentions more than a year ago.
According to a list of project recommendations released by the administration in April 2013, the proposed $196.6 million, 600,000-square-foot reconstruction of two buildings within the state’s Hill Farms complex, which now houses the WisDOT, might be undertaken using “an alternative delivery method.” The document goes on to say that state officials “will explore the possibility of a lease with an option to purchase the new facility.”
Going that route would entail seeking proposals from private developers. The state later would try to sell any unused parts of the Hill Farms property and the nearby Badger Road State Office Building, which houses the Department of Employee Trust Funds.
All of those plans appeared again Oct. 10 in a request for proposals the state Department of Administration put on its website. The document gave developers who are considering the project five days to sign up for a mandatory tour of the complex Oct. 17.
According to an email attributed to Cullen Werwie, a DOA spokesman, about 40 people from 10 development teams attended. Those who want to remain in the running must submit proposals by Friday.
The quick succession of deadlines and the lack of much fanfare around the release of the request for proposals have stirred up skepticism. Among those who are raising questions is state Sen. Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat and member of the state Building Commission, which approved the list of recommended projects released by the governor in April 2013.
Risser said he wondered how any developer who did not know of the state’s plans before Oct. 10 could assemble a proposal for so large a project in less than a month. He said he has struggled to get administration officials to answer questions about the quick timeline and to provide detailed plans.
Yet, despite the apparent fast pace, a final deal could not be reached with a developer until next year at the earliest. The state still owns the Hill Farms property, and a sale, according to the email attributed to Werwie, could not take place without approval from lawmakers, who will not reconvene in Madison until January.
Risser conceded there is nothing new in the state’s turning to the private sector to build an office building. Officials, in fact, took that path with a state building, the Risser Justice Center, that bears Risser’s family name. The state did the same with buildings put up for the DOA, the Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection, and the Department of Revenue.
Risser said state officials relied on the private sector out of a general belief that it make undertaking the large construction projects less cumbersome. He said he does not know how long developers had been given in the past to make proposals, adding that he has been happy with the results.
“That has been the process that has been used,” Risser said. “And I don’t have any hesitancy about it.”
Most of the buildings that private developers have built under contract with the DOA have been bought by the state. That was the case, for instance, with the Department of Revenue building, which was built on Madison’s Rimrock Road and occupied by government employees in 2000.
The developer was Madison-based The Alexander Co. Inc. Joe Alexander, company president, said he was in college when the work on Rimrock Road was underway and few at the company remember details about a project that was underway nearly 15 years ago.
Alexander, who said his company had representatives tour the Hill Farms building but would not submit a proposal, agreed with Risser that turning to a private developer will make overseeing the large project easier for the state. Whatever company is selected will be responsible for securing the necessary financing, drawing up the designs and assembling a construction team.
“The state,” Alexander said, “would be dealing with a single point of contact.”
Making a developer responsible for assembling a construction team means the proposed Hill Farms reconstruction, the largest single project included in the state’s 2013-15 construction plans, will not go out to bid. Instead, the state’s request for proposals calls on respondents to put together a list of companies that will be employed, provide information about their past work on state and public projects, and list any other current or future commitments those businesses might have.
The winning proposal will be selected according to a number of criteria, only one of which is price. State officials, according to the request, will consider the designs, completion schedule and internal financial information put forward by developers.
The ability to obtain loans also will weigh heavily in the final reckoning. According to the request for proposals, no company will be considered unless it can furnish evidence of obtaining financing for a project worth $300 million or more within the past five years and the ability to get financing for a project worth $250 million or more.
The high bar has left some wondering which developers might be capable of submitting a proposal for the project. One, Wisconsin developer Terrence Wall, sent a letter to the governor in June 2013 expressing interest in buying the Hill Farms buildings.
Campaign finance records maintained by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign show that Wall gave $8,854 to Walker between 2005 and 2012. Wall declined to comment.
Risser said many of his questions about the proposed Hill Farms reconstruction will receive answers in the coming months. He only wishes, he said, that the Walker administration did not appear to be in such a rush.
“A little more information would be helpful,” Risser said, “and a little more time.”
— The Associated Press also contributed to this report.