Request to save old Waukesha County Health and Human Services building denied

Published on: 2/4/2014

A defeated look came over Kathleen Cummings' face as she buried her head with her hand during last week's Waukesha County Board meeting.

The county supervisor showed her disappointment and frustration after seeing developments that would indicate the former Waukesha County Health and Human Services Building's days are numbered.

Cummings came to the meeting hoping the 23-member board would approve an amendment that would allow an option to lease the building to a private developer.

She left the meeting with her amendment not only denied, but then saw the original resolution pass by a 21-2 margin that will allow the building to either be sold and then relocated, or torn down.

Many who spoke in favor of saving the building, which is now vacant after the new HHS building opened on the site of the Waukesha County Courthouse campus last fall, also left discouraged.

Others, however, were pleased at how the vote took place.

"What we need in that area is space," Supervisor Duane Paulson said. "By putting in there to sell or lease it I think that's the worst possible thing you could do. Governments make terrible landlords. We have the opportunity here to control our destiny."

If a bidder for the building isn't found within six months, a plan will be brought forth to raze it. That project would be introduced during the 2015 budget process later this year.

At the Waukesha County Board's Executive Committee meeting the week before, Department of Public Works Director Allison Bussler said the cost to take down the building is $3.3 million, while it's around $24 million to make upgrades to the more than 100-year-old facility.

Fighting for building

Cummings had previously looked at ways to preserve the building, which had been originally used as the Moor Mud Baths Resort. But it was shot down at the executive committee meeting, and while many were on her side at last week's Waukesha County Board meeting to allow a developer to keep the building at its location, it was denied by a 12-11 vote.

"For those who are saying (leasing) doesn't need to be in there, what are you afraid of?" Cummings said. "The process continues. What is administration afraid of if we put in those words? That somebody might actually be interested in the building. They want to re-purpose it, they want to be partners with us, they want to generate revenue? We can avoid $3.3 million levied on the 2015 budget. Is that what we're afraid of?

"I'm not afraid of it. What I'm supportive of is looking at all of the possibilities."

"By supporting this, this county board can show this community its good faith in historic preservation," Cummings added.

Bussler said it has been the county's intention to use that site for expansion and future county operations.

The building is a local, state and national landmark. The county will give notification to the Wisconsin Historical Society and city's Landmarks Commission of the new resolution.

After Paulson said "he wished the county would have had some say when this was placed on historical landmarks," a direct Cummings, who heads the Landmarks Commission as a city alderwoman, replied "the county had 90 days to refute their landmarks status back in the day and they didn't."

Making their pitch

If last week's meeting is any indication, don't expect many at the city level to go down quietly.

A petition, with 245 signatures, shows those against delisting the property or demolishing the building. It says continuing with the resolution will not only harm the building but other historic elements on the site, including the springhouse and golf course.

Thomas Coyne, president of the Waukesha Labor Council, said he spoke with Mary Emery, president of the Waukesha Preservation Alliance, and agrees that if it is sold to a developer it would allow the property to return to the tax rolls and generate revenue for the future.

"There are already two developers that have an expressed interest in the building," Emery said. "Both are reputable developers with experience in historic preservation projects. Administration also stated that the county bought this land 40 years ago for expansion. Forty years ago historic preservation was in its infancy. We, as a nation, were just beginning to realize historic structures, both economically and culturally."

'Invest to progress'

Taking it down, however, is about helping the future in a different way, Supervisor David Swan said.

Swan said keeping the building would put the county in a bad predicament, just as it is now with the Waukesha County Museum, a building that is now struggling financially after the county's funding to the museum was cut back (Cummings said that isn't the same case because the county wouldn't be giving it money over 10 years like it has for the museum).

"It seems for some reason if we don't take the opportunity to move forward plans just lurk and lurk," Swan said. "If we don't start, future generations are going to be stuck with the building."

Supervisor Michael Crowley had the same opinion.

"If we don't move forward with a resolution we're not doing what we've been elected to do and that's to invest to progress," Crowley said.