Mayor keeps Cedar Gorge bidder secret as council lobbied

Neitzke won’t name potential buyer of preserve land even as developer’s representative tries to woo aldermen

A representative of a potential buyer for Port Washington land slated to become the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve talked to the Common Council Tuesday about his clients plans to buy and develop the land. Neither the representative of Mayor Ted Neitzke would divulge the name of the prospective buyer. Press file photo
By 
KrISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

The person who wants to buy the land designated for the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve attempted to woo the Port Washington Common Council during a special meeting Tuesday but neither his representative nor Mayor Ted Neitzke would divulge the name of the prospective buyer.

Neitzke, who said he and City Administrator Tony Brown met with the potential buyer last week, said the council meeting was intended to ensure the city’s dealings with the man are open.

Yet Neitzke said after the meeting that he and Brown agreed not to reveal the proposed buyer’s identity “through the process” in order to make Tuesday’s meeting happen.

Neitzke and Brown disputed a statement made Tuesday by Scott Meyer, the buyer’s representative, that they signed  non-disclosure agreements to keep the man’s name secret.

“We did not sign non-disclosure agreements,” Neitzke said, nor were they asked to.

Ald. Patrick Tearney questioned the potential buyer’s need for secrecy.

“It seems like your client has a lot of concern about friction. I can promise you there’s going to be friction,” he told Meyer, noting many people prefer the property be purchased by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust for a nature preserve.

“I’m wondering if he’s prepared for that.”

Ald. Paul Neumyer said after the meeting that he would like to know who the potential buyer is.

“I see no reason why they can’t identify themselves,” he said. “Anything we do, we have to be upfront. It remains to be seen when this person will identify himself.”

Neitzke, who said he encouraged the buyer to reach out to aldermen, said he and Brown agreed to work with the potential buyer’s representative.

“I tried to get them to go ahead and meet in the open so the council could ask questions. I was pretty happy we got that far,” he said.

Meyer told the council the potential buyer and his family are private people who don’t want to get caught up in the fray.

“Put yourself in his shoes,” he told aldermen. “Would you want anybody to know who you were?”

Brown said he understands people’s interest in the potential buyer and his plan, but noted there isn’t a plan right now to react to, adding that city officials seldom meet with investors, which is what the buyer would be.

Brown characterized the 15-minute meeting he and Neitzke had with the prospective buyer as a “meet and greet” session, and said they asked the man to meet with the council to at least explain what the backstory is and what his intentions are.”

Neitzke said he doesn’t know when the city will meet again with the potential buyer or his representative.

Secrecy has shrouded much of the discussions around the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff nature preserve property in recent months.

The Land Trust has been working to purchase the 131-acre property just east of Highway C on Port Washington’s far south side from Waukesha State Bank, and has raised much of the $5 million needed to complete the purchase.

However, a $2.3 million Wisconsin Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund grant recommended by the Department of Natural Resources that would have put the fundraising campaign over the top abruptly stalled when it came before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee for approval last fall after an anonymous legislator objected to the grant.

The state and Land Trust later agreed to a $1.6 million award but the committee has refused to meet to consider it. Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Cedarburg and a member of the committee, said he believes the matter is dead since a lobbyist representing the prospective buyer approached members saying that the man would preserve portions of the land while developing the rest.

The Land Trust has since committed another $500,000 toward the purchase but the Ozaukee County Board last month narrowly voted not to contribute an additional  $1 million toward the purchase.

Neitzke wrote a letter to Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt saying he preferred the funds go to support infrastructure and safety projects, not the preserve. The city’s three county supervisors all voted against the additional funding.

Land Trust Executive Director Tom Stolp said Wednesday that while he understands why the city met with the potential buyer’s representative to get more information, the organization is committed to buying the land and preserving it.

Meyer told the council Tuesday that the potential buyer “has the wherewithal to develop” the land on his own.

While the Land Trust has the first option to buy the land, that expires on Sept. 21, Meyer said, but if the organization doesn’t complete the purchase the buyer he represents will “write a $5 million cashier’s check” the following day to close the deal.

It’s a cash deal with no contingencies, Meyer said, adding that the buyer has the money to do the development on his own as well.

“He’s not looking for any TIFs,” he said, referring to a mechanism popularly used to help developers finance infrastructure improvements. “He doesn’t need that.”

Preliminary estimates of the cost to extend utilities to the property are $4 million, officials noted, something Meyer said isn’t a problem for the man.

While the buyer wants a return on his investment, he added, it doesn’t need to be as high as typically required.

When pressed for a rate of return, Meyer said the buyer is “very flexible” adding, “All those details will be worked out.”

“He wants to do this the right way,” Meyer said, adding that the buyer would ask the city for a list of preferred developers and pick one of those to work with. “He’s not married to one particular plan. He wants to develop it in a mutual fashion.”

But, Meyer said, he isn’t looking to build a big mansion for himself on the land.

The proposal, he said, is “very low risk, high reward for the City of Port Washington.”

Ald. Deb Postl asked when the buyer would want a “wish list” of the type of development the city would like to see, adding, “This is almost too good to be true.”

Neitzke asked if the buyer owned a parcel just north of the Cedar Gorge property once earmarked for the Cedar Vineyard development, which never came to fruition.

“I could be wrong. I thought the investor owned that property,” he said.

Meyer said he did not know if the buyer also owned that land.

Several aldermen said after the meeting that they are skeptical of the promises made, with two saying they prefer to see the Land Trust buy the property.

“It’s an important amenity,” Neumyer said, adding he’s “disappointed” in the Joint Finance Committee’s lack of action.

Ald. Dan Benning said he, too, wants to see the Land Trust buy the property.

“I want to save that gorge and lakefront for public access,” he said, adding it would be a great extension to the nearby Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve. “They can’t touch that land, so why not let people have access to it?”

As to the buyer, Benning said, “Until he buys the land, I’m not thinking a lot about it.”

Ald. Mike Gasper said the council doesn’t have much information to make judgments on the buyer or his plans.

“There is very little to make a judgment on because he said next to nothing,” he said.

Gasper questioned how the buyer could make a development work financially, especially considering roughly half the land may be undevelopable and he wants to make some sort of profit on the deal.

“It’s hard to believe he’s not going to come in and ask for a TIF at some point,” he said.

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