City’s 2014 decision to sell land ignited controversy

Flames were fanned by $250,000 price, TIF support, building designed to resemble a factory

THE BLUES FACTORY would have paid homage to the Wisconsin Chair Co., the parent company of Paramount Records, as seen in this rendering by Kubala Washatko Architects.
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

The parking lot at the far north end of Port Washington’s north harbor slip looks nondescript, but it has become a lightning rod in the community.

The controversy began when city officials decided to sell the lot for development, with then-Mayor Tom Mlada saying it would be a catalyst for development throughout downtown.

But a group of residents opposed that idea, saying that the lot provides much needed parking and the city should not sell valuable publicly owned lakefront land for a building that would block lake views.

The controversy, which split the community and cost at least one alderman his seat, took shape after the Common Council went ahead and declared the lot surplus property in 2014, and ultimately agreed to seek development proposals for the land.

Christopher Long of Madison, a blues aficionado, submitted the only development request, saying the site was ideal for the Blues Factory, an entertainment center, restaurant and museum dedicated to the history of Paramount Records and its parent company, the Wisconsin Chair Co., which had been located on the property decades earlier.

He wanted to have the building completed in 2017, in time for the centennial of the Chair Co.

The Blues Factory concept was embraced by many, although the planned location was not. But the design of the building, which paid homage to the Chair Factory, was decried by many as a blight on the lakefront, and news that the developer was seeking as much as $1 million in funding from the city’s tax incremental district to help finance the project spurred more division.

One resident filed a petition to bring the matter to a referendum, but it was ultimately rejected. 

City meetings were regularly packed with opponents of the plan. A crowd of more than 80 people spoke for hours before the Common Council decided in September 2015 to sell the harborfront lot and negotiate a developer’s agreement with Long to bring the Blues Factory to life.

Numerous closed session meetings were held by the city as it worked to negotiate the agreement and finalize conditions for the sale.

By September 2016, frustrated as negotiations bogged down and deadlines for the purchase and agreement were extended, Long stepped down from the project and Port resident Gertjan van den Broek, his business partner, took it over.

The agreements and purchase of the land were delayed as the city worked to shore up the sheetwall that stabilized the north slip parking lot — a project that didn’t officially end until late spring 2018.

And in December 2017, the city asked van den Broek to work with Jim Vollmar and Don Voigt to accommodate their planned conversion of the long vacant grocery store just north of the parking lot to condominiums. 

Although Vollmar and Voigt did not move forward with their plan, the city ultimately agreed in 2018 to eliminate the requirement that work begin on the Blues Factory within 180 days of the sheetwall repairs being completed.

That requirement would have allowed the city to buy back the land for the $250,000 van den Broek paid for the property if substantial construction did not start on time.

The project then dropped off the radar until Adam Draeger announced on New Year’s Eve that he plans to build a new, larger Inventors Brewpub on the site.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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