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City's private/public agency dies quietly

March 5, 2014

In keeping with Wauwatosa's recent movement to simplify government, the city's public/private development agency was dissolved last week and its few assets transferred to the Community Development Authority.

"The way we are currently structured is very confusing to our clients," said Development Director Paulette Enders, in urging a vote to disband the Wauwatosa Economic Development Corporation.

An agency like the WEDC in many communities is a vehicle for low-interest lending for business-related development and expansion. The Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation, for example, manages a loan fund of $60 million, which it uses to share risk with private entities and create financing, together with private financial institutions. It is active in brownfield remediation and other areas, helping dozens of businesses a year.

The Wauwatosa agency was in recent years relegated to reviewing requests for Community Development Block Grant funding.

A limited purpose

Other duties the WEDC might have pursued were stripped away from it in a restructuring of the city's development efforts around 2009, said Alderman Dennis McBride, a member of the WEDC board.

Also, the Community Development Authority, created more recently, "can do a lot of things that the WEDC might have done in the past," he said.

"There still is a virtue in a private/public partnership, but it just wasn't, as it was finally structured, really able to do anything with that. All we were really doing was, we were a glorified Community Development Block Grant committee."

Block grant funding

The corporation currently had oversight of more than $200,000 in CDBG funds, said City Attorney Alan Kesner.

It has approved or considered block grant funding in recent years to a number of prominent existing or forthcoming retail businesses, including Central Bark, Hue Vienamese Restaurant, IL Mito, BelAir Cantina, Le Reve Patisserie & Cafe, Alterra, Rocket Baby, Highlands Cafe and others. Grants approved ranged as high as $150,000 to, for example, Central Bark and BelAir Cantina.

Minutes from its meetings show it to be concerned with job creation.

Volunteers spread thin

Another consideration in ending the agency, for McBride, was a shortage of willing talent.

"We have — I've lost track now — something like 28 committees and commissions outside of the Common Council," he said. "And we have a relatively small community. It's hard to staff all of those with qualified people who have the time and the talent to devote to this. So my thought, like others, is we can use our citizens to greater advantage by finding better places for them than a glorified CDBG committee."

The WEDC boards consisted of Robert Simi, a construction executive, Robert Gintoft, in commercial real estate, McBride and Alderman Joel Tilleson.

Where Tosa stands

Simi said the elimination of the agency was in keeping with a 2009 consultant's recommendation — the Horton Report — to "streamline our development process, and we think that it's a cheap, easy way to give us a competitive advantage for when developers come through."

Economic development is handled particularly smoothly in West Allis and Shorewood, he said of other communities in the area. Wauwatosa is "probably middle of the pack, maybe upper 50 percentile ... for the people of Wauwatosa, just generally pretty good is not acceptable."

Gintoft, the president of the board, argued against the disbanding of the agency, though in the end he voted for it. He suggested it was a lost opportunity — that it could function as a "think tank," a place where forward-looking ideas and long-range planning could be explored, which should involve more people from the private sector.

It could be "things we're not even thinking of," he said.

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