Development at issue in hot Port mayoral race

Neitzke wants plan for growth, Benning calls for mix of housing, both oppose Blues Factory on lakefront
Ozaukee Press staff

Developments ranging from the proposed Prairie’s Edge and Cedar Vineyard subdivisions to the planned Blues Factory on Port Washington’s lakefront have been at the forefront of Port Washington city politics for years.

And the two candidates on the ballot in the Tuesday, April 6, election for Port’s next mayor, Ald. Dan Benning and Plan Commission member Ted Neitzke IV, have differing philosophies on development.

Neitzke, 49, of 513 Brentwood Ct., believes the city needs to create a vision for its future that outlines the developments it wants and then work with developers to realize that vision instead of simply reacting to whatever plan a developer brings to the table.

“It’s our city. We should define what it looks like,” Neitzke, who served as a city alderman for one term in the mid-1990s, said. “We have to be intentional. I think Port Washington has the opportunity then to say all future development needs to be in alignment with this. We can say to developers, ‘This is what we want.’”

The city can use strict zoning codes and  work with property owners to ensure land is ready for the development it envisions, he said.

  The city also needs to stick to the plans and contracts it approves with developers, Neitzke said, not allow them to be amended after the fact.

“We need to hold ourselves to what we say we’re going to do and make sure our partners are doing what they say they will,” he said. 

Port, he said, is undergoing a renaissance and evolving from an industrial community to a destination and “I want to be mayor so I can be part of that.”

Benning, 59, of 1012 Jade St., who has represented the city’s 4th Aldermanic District since 2017, agreed that the city is changing.

“It’s not a blue-collar community with Trak, Bolens and Simplicity anymore,” he said. “We still have some industry, but we’re primarily a destination community where people come to eat at fine restaurants, shop in unique stores and enjoy the lakefront. I want to see us develop that more.”

Although some people want to see big-box stores, that isn’t realistic, especially given the proximity to the commercial base in Grafton, Benning said.

Likewise, given Saukville’s strong industrial park, he said, “I don’t know if it makes sense to take the land we have and try to attract large manufacturing.”

Port, he said, has the lake and should make the most of it, working to attract homes.

“Development to me is how do we manage different types of living units,” Benning said.

The city needs to have a balance of housing types, he said, adding he would work to provide incentives for developers to build more affordable, starter housing in the city.

He said he would also work with neighboring communities such as Grafton and Saukville to bring their master plans into alignment to provide a more regional plan.

One of the most controversial developments proposed in recent history is the Blues Factory entertainment complex off the city’s north harbor slip.

Both Benning and Neitzke said they like the idea of an entertainment venue, but they agreed that the current site is not the right place.

Benning noted that the project called for tax incremental financing incentives, and as time goes on, that becomes less feasible. He would like to open talks with developer Gertjan van den Broek to see what his plans are for the property and the Blues Factory, which Benning said would make more sense at the former Lakefront Lanes bowling alley, which van den Broek also owns.

Neitzke said the issue demonstrates the need for the city to be clear about what the land should be used for and when the project will be completed. 

Emergency services are another area of concern for the city, as the ambulance service has struggled with staffing and officials have grappled with the idea of building a second fire station.

“Clearly we need to do something about our facilities,” Neitzke said.   

The recent shared services study conducted by the Wisconsin Policy Forum “is a report and an opportunity,” he said. “I would like to see a plan.”

Now, he said, the city needs to determine how it will collaborate with other departments and communities, how it will fund those efforts and what facilities are needed. That needs to be done with the fire department and neighboring communities so everyone has ownership of the results.

Benning, too, said the study is a starting point, one that he would move forward by meeting with Grafton Fire Chief Bill Rice, who also serves as Saukville’s interim fire chief, and other area officials.

“I believe they are willing and wanting to do something better together,” Benning said.

And as much as the city needs a new fire station, he said, that needs to wait until a collaborative arrangement is developed.

“I want to see it move forward, but I don’t know what it is,” Benning said, noting the design can change depending on the collaboration.

He added that he prefers a new fire station be built at the corner of highways 33 and LL rather than the proposed location at Highway 33 and Jackson Road, in large part because there are no issues with the city extending sewer service to that site.

Both Benning and Neitzke said they would work to improve relations between the city and Saukville, as well as other neighboring communities and governmental entities.

Both said that working with others on collaborative efforts is a strength they have, adding that it doesn’t matter if past efforts to work together have failed.

“There are a lot of partnership opportunities,” Benning said. 

Neitzke said he would like the city and Port-Saukville School District to meet at least twice a year and work more closely, noting that they make up the largest taxing entities in the community.

Both men said Port needs to make a priority of fixing the city-owned lighthouse, which has fallen into disrepair.

Neitzke said he would seek private funding for the project, something he has a significant amount of experience in.

The city’s failure to repair the structure points to a need for a strategic plan to maintain capital items, he added.

“It’s embarrassing,” Neitzke said of the lighthouse’s condition. “This is a good example of why we need a strategic plan.”

Benning said the city needs to get a good cost estimate for repair of the structure, then seek donations, sponsorships and grants to fund it.

Given the state’s levy limits, he noted, it’s not likely the city can afford to do the work without this sort of effort.

“We’ve spent a lot of money fixing the breakwater,” Benning said. “We don’t want this to fall into the lake. It’s very iconic.”

Benning, who serves on the city’s Finance and License Committee, Diversity and Inclusion Committee — which he spearheaded after last summer’s Black Lives Matter marches in the city — and the fire station committee, retired in 2019 after 30 years as an information technology executive with Johnson Controls but works part-time for Eernisse Funeral home and J&M Displays.

Although the city has a weak mayor-strong council form of government, he said he sees the mayor’s role as an important one, working side-by-side with the city administrator to further the city’s goals and administer policy.

“I can ask all the questions I want. I can challenge things. I can bring matters up for the council to consider,” Benning said, and he would be the city’s ambassador. “As mayor, I just can’t vote.”

Neitzke, who grew up in Port, has been CEO of CESA 6, which provides collaborative services for public and parochial schools and non-profit organizations, since 2016, and previously served as a school teacher, principal and superintendent.

The mayor, he said, is the city’s advocate and ambassador, serving as not just the city’s voice but its ears to ensure people’s voices are heard. 

He said he has a 30, 60 and 90-day plan that, if he’s elected, includes visiting the city’s businesses beginning the day after the election and meeting with area businesses and shop owners to find out what they want and need from the city. 

He also said he would work to improve communication with residents, saying no one should be surprised by anything the city does, whether it’s changing the street lights to LED fixtures, starting street projects or planning for the future.

The mayor serves a three-year term. Incumbent Marty Becker announced last fall he would not seek a second term.

Running unopposed in Tuesday’s election are incumbent aldermen Deb Postl, 1st District; Mike Gasper, 3rd District; Jonathan Pleitner, 5th District; and John Sigwart, 7th District. Aldermen serve two-year terms.


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