With the room quiet, Roger Patton came to the microphone inside the council chambers and delivered an emotional plea.
The Waukesha alderman got chocked up, grabbed his handkerchief before pausing for almost 20 seconds.
Fighting back tears, the 76-year-old gathered himself during the March 6 Plan Commission public hearing on the termination of the downtown Waukesha Business Improvement District.
“I don’t want to give up on this,” said Patton, a former BID Board member and who as the District 11 alderman serves constituents in downtown. “We can work together downtown. It’s possible and we got a month to do it.”
But time is ticking away.
The public hearing was the latest step in the process to have the BID, a taxing district in downtown Waukesha, disbanded.
A petition by 92 property owners within the BID was signed last month, with most saying they were dissatisfied with the new board’s operating plan that would use more of their tax to fund other organizations in downtown.
City Administrator Ed Henschel helped jump-start this plan after the BID’s former executive director resigned last year due to a “hostile work environment” and the Common Council and Mayor Jeff Scrima struggled to find new board members after 11 of the 13 members resigned last fall.
Instead of putting the tax toward administrative expenses, Henschel and the Board looked at a plan that would put more money in other directions such as banners, decorations and grants and financial support toward other groups’ events like Friday Night Live, GuitarTown and Silver Bells.
“I don’t have a horse in this race,” Henschel said. “I thought I was a stable barn here to help fix the barn a little bit. If the people who signed the petition want it to go away then nothing should happen.
“If they desire to have a downtown Business Improvement District, (then they should) lobby the BID Board members to have the chairman reconstitute the board to get together and have a meeting of the minds. If not, the petition should simply run its course.”
The assessed value of the property of the owners who signed the petition totaled around $31.45 million. That number is more than the 50 percent of the total assessed property of the BID (a requirement according to state statutes to have a BID disbanded), which is around $52.37 million.
Property owners in the BID district now have until April 5 to add or remove their name to the petition. But in order for the BID to be saved, owners with more than a combined $4 million in assessed property value would have to remove their name from the petition.
Could that happen?
“One of the main problems was the composition of the BID Board,” said Catherine Huelsman, of Berg Management in downtown Waukesha. “Majority of people on the BID Board did not represent the property owners and therein lies a major issue. I think if we can solve that issue we can probably get some people to change their mind on the petition.”
But some at the public hearing questioned whether the eight-person board could even meet to go over any changes to the bylaws since the petition has been filed.
State statute doesn’t restrict board members from meeting during this time frame, as it only says “the board nor the municipality may enter into any new obligations by contract or otherwise to implement the operating plan until the expiration of 30 days after the date of hearing.”
Nevertheless, some property owners after the meeting said they were skeptical if changes would happen or if a compromise wants to be made.
Once 30 days has passed since last week’s hearing and the requirements for termination have been met, the BID, which represented 159 properties and covers 1 million square feet in retail space bounded by St. Paul Avenue, Barstow Street, East and Wisconsin avenues, will be disbanded.
“I think this boils down to if there is any chance for the BID to continue the board needs to decide whether they want to present something different and then it depends on whether the property owners want to accept that,” said Shawn Reilly, a downtown attorney and a former BID president. “It’s quite simple. It’s up to the BID Board.”
If terminated, it will mark the end of the longest running BID in Wisconsin. It was founded in 1985, Community Development Director Steve Crandell said before the public hearing.
Crandell said BID districts around the state were formed when downtowns experienced a decline due to the development of strip centers in urban malls.
“That left a dramatic impact on downtown with vacant store lots and less than desirable infrastructure and a less than pedestrian-friendly environment that the malls provided,” Crandell said.
While it took time to grow, with a BID now leading the way in downtown with an executive director and a board of directors, more businesses popped up as its main goals are business recruitment and retention. It helped promote and maintain the area and organized events to make downtown Waukesha a destination.
Alderman Vance Skinner remembers how it wasn’t much of a destination when he attended Carroll University in the early 1990s.
“I remember the physical void in downtown,” Skinner said. “There wasn’t much happening culturally. Store fronts were empty. Contrast that to now and there’s a lot happening downtown and a lot of that is because of the BID. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”
The BID-sponsored event, Farmers Market, won’t go away this year as the Waukesha Downtown Business Association will run it. But marketing, redevelopment and overall upkeep of the downtown, the BID staff did would be lost.
And Dan Italiano, owner of Magellans on Main Street, questioned whether business owners who run events like Friday Night Live, also a WDBA event, can handle all these events.
“A lot of what they do is a labor of love,” Italiano said. “Can we expect that they’re going to keep doing that forever or indefinitely? I don’t know. That’s a pretty important thing downtown. All are being taken care of, but will that stay there?”
Italiano added, “you just can’t replace what (the BID) does. No one’s going to go out there and actively vie to bring new businesses in like they did. Once it’s gone, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.”
The Steaming Cup owner Kerry MacKay, who isn’t a property owner, said he hoped everyone could come together despite the issues, which also include the Friday Night Live music series.
“I wish we could get along,” MacKay said. “I wish we could have a great organization and all be going in the same direction. Probably not going to happen. We are diametrically opposed. But I think in our hearts we all want the best for downtown Waukesha. So while we’re bound by the BID boundaries to collect (the tax) and do things I wish we were bound by the boundaries of coming together. If the BID goes away I can’t see that ever happening.
“I can’t see that we’re going to start another BID.”