Mayor, developers differ over now 'dead' Waukesha convention center proposal

Published on: 8/20/2013

While the convention center that was introduced a couple years ago did not materialize, what goes at that site is still up for debate.

"We are optimistic good things will come in time," said Mayor Jeff Scrima, referencing the seven-acre location along the Fox River between Waukesha State Bank and Northwest Barstow St. and across from the city's transit center on St. Paul Avenue.

One of the main ideas he and others at the city have now discussed is adding another loft-style building similar to the soon-to-open 42-unit Kendal Lofts at 456 W. Main St.

"It's quality housing for young professionals and baby boomers who love the social atmosphere where they can walk to a coffee house and enjoy downtown," Scrima said.

Scrima said the site, near a 450-space parking structure, is especially attractive because it's right on the city's two-mile riverwalk.

However, Bill Huelsman, of Berg Management who owns part of the property, said that option would not happen because the parcel is zoned commercial and he would not agree to a residential change.

"The property owners, including ourselves, would oppose any zoning change," Huelsman said. "You can't just willy-nilly do that. It would never happen."

Another option

If that loft-style building doesn't materialize, another option, Scrima said, could be an ice rink, similar to what Red Arrow Park offers in Milwaukee.

He said the site could be transformed into a splash pad during the summer.

Whether these development options happen is to be determined and while they would ultimately have to get governmental approval, Scrima said talks with developers have taken place.

"We've had conceptual conversations with developers and we believe those types of options will likely come forward in due time," Scrima said.

Convention center halted

Huelsman isn't convinced about those options and said the convention center, which included conceptual plans of 25,000 square feet of meeting space and 240 guest rooms, would have been best suited for that location. Huelsman said there was an interested hotel chain that submitted an architectural rendering and site plan.

So why did the convention center momentum come to a halt when Scrima and Huelsman both said the feasibility study concluded downtown could support this project?

The project did not move forward when how to fund it became an issue.

Scrima said Berg Management asked the city for $5 million upfront in tax incremental financing.

"We were not willing to provide that," Scrima said. "We felt it was a risk too high to the taxpayers."

Huelsman said Berg Management asked for a regular tax incremental financing plan where the city would loan the developers money that would be paid back through property taxes.

Scrima, on the other hand, wanted a pay-as-you-go tax incremental financing option where the developers would have provided all of the money upfront and would be paid back through an increase in property taxes.

"There would have been no risk to the city," Scrima said, adding Berg Management declined that offer.

Worth the risk?

Huelsman said a project like this couldn't work.

"Every cost has to be accounted for initially," Huelsman said. "You can't finance it in (a pay-as-you-go) situation. That was explained over and over and (Scrima) doesn't seem to understand that. So we can't move forward until the city gets behind a regular tax incremental financing arrangement."

Scrima added, "When we asked them why they don't just put $5 million of their own money, they said it was too risky. So we responded if you feel it's too risky, we're not going to take on the risk."

However, Huelsman said "a redevelopment in an area like this doesn't work without plenty of risk from the developers and we were willing to accept enormous risk in financing the project and to attract a national chain hotel.

"The city has over the years recognized a project like this doesn't happen without a TIF. "I feel bad about it and it still could happen. But not without the city's participation," he said.