When Lafayette Crump became commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development in July, he knew he would be taking over from a tough act to follow.
His predecessor in the position, Rocky Marcoux, had been there for 16 years, making him the longest serving development commissioner in city history. During that time, Marcoux oversaw a downtown renaissance brought about not only by the construction of prominent landmarks such as the Fiserv Forum and the Northwest Mutual headquarters tower, but also countless apartment, office and hotel buildings. Crump now must find a way to ensure the development continues even as the coronavirus has caused many investors to cling to their money.
That’s not to say, though, that his predecessor’s years in office were without controversy. Even before Marcoux became development commissioner, the department had been plagued with complaints that it encouraged construction and growth in downtown at the expense of outlying neighborhoods.
Crump says he thinks at least some of the criticism has been unfair.
“There are going to be some things I get credit for over the next few years that were in the works when I got here and maybe they’ll say DCD didn’t do this before,” he said “And in some cases, it will be true. And in some cases it won’t. It will be things DCD was already doing.”
But he’s also well aware from his own upbringing and previous work at Prism Technical Management & Marketing Services — a company often enlisted to help contractors meet their diversity-in-hiring goals — that disparities exist. He’s determined to use his new position to make a difference.
Crump recently sat down to talk with The Daily Reporter about his plans for the development department and his hopes for the city’s continued growth. (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
The Daily Reporter: Do you think the city officials should always be doing everything in their power to preserve and renovate old or historic buildings?
Lafayette Crump: When you can get it done, it’s great. That’s part of the character of this city. With the beautiful architectural structures we have here, you do want to find a way that a number of those properties can have an adaptive reuse.
But there’s always a balancing test for the city, for developers and for the community to figure out what’s the highest and best use of land and some of the actual structure themselves. Renovation won’t happen in all cases. We have to be honest about that. But to the extent that we can, it’s really important we ensure the adaptive reuse of some of our structures.
TDR: After years of little progress, the 44-story Couture apartment high-rise planned for Milwaukee’s lakefront appears to be moving forward again. Are you optimistic that this project will be built?
Crump: I am an optimist about it. I happened to be on a discussion with the developer, Rick Barrett, the other day and we were talking about a different project, about some other great things happening in the city. And he mentioned his own optimism as a developer.
And that’s the mentality you also develop in the public sector. But it’s important to have that optimism but temper it with enough realism about what could go wrong. Never be pessimistic. But know that things are going to be a roller coaster. If 2020 has shown us nothing else, it’s that a lot of roller coasters lie ahead.
TDR: What can you and other city officials do to encourage more development in neighborhoods outside Milwaukee’s downtown?
Crump: The way you increase that is through intentionality. There are some things we have to do in our work to make sure projects happen properly. But there are also some things that are more than likely to happen in downtown Milwaukee by virtue of: That’s where some business want to be, where people want to live, where some organizations want to be. Our job is to help shepherd those things through, make sure they are done properly, make sure the mechanics are there to finance those things.
Sometimes we don’t have to convince people to be downtown. But we may have to convince people to be in other parts of the city. Sometimes it’s because people want to be near the center of the city. They want to be close to a population center. They may want to be near the airport or a highway. They may also be concerned — rightly or wrongly — about workforce availability and safety.
What we’ve got to do is build the case that there are many different areas of the city that are viable for living and working in. We are going to go through our office and through our council members and the mayor’s office and his team, but also with the community to get things done in all 15 aldermanic districts. We’ll do that through intentionality, through incentives, through thinking creatively and through hard work.
You can’t have a thriving downtown and nothing happening in other parts of the city. It’s just like you can’t take Milwaukee out of Wisconsin and act like Milwaukee and the rest of the state don’t have a symbiotic relationship.