PRESS EDITORIAL: A 52-foot lakefront monument to a city’s mistake

Voter approval in a referendum could be required before the City of Port Washington can issue bonds to raise the money it needs to give to the owner of the Blues Factory property.

This fact, which was made public at last week’s Common Council meeting, presents both an intriguing temptation and a sobering confirmation of the impact of the city government’s failure to protect the precious asset of public lakefront access.

The temptation is for residents who oppose the construction of the commercial building planned for a site overlooking the harbor to take advantage of the statutory requirement that a referendum on the bond issue be held if 619 signatures can be collected by March 17 on petitions demanding the vote.

A referendum vote against the bond issue that would be another statement of public opposition to the development is an appealing possibility, but the referendum would not stop the project. The city would merely find another way to raise the funds it owes the developer.

There has already been a referendum on the harbor land development, and it did not go well. A referendum opposing the sale of the then publicly-owned land for the Blues Factory in 2015 passed by a large majority, but city elected officials ignored it, and promptly approved the sale of the land as the site for the Blues Factory entertainment attraction.

Last week’s Common Council bond issue discussion was a reminder of the enduring consequences of that decision, which include the absurd obligation to give the developer a $1 million incentive to erect a large commercial structure at the edge of the harbor. The city agreed to give the taxpayer-funded gift to TBF (The Blues Factory) Development, which owns the land and now has city approval for a building to house a brewpub and event facility on the site.

With this, Port Washington achieved the distinction of showcasing one of the most graphic examples of the commercial exploitation of Wisconsin’s tax incremental financing (TIF) law. 

The TIF mechanism was designed to fund infrastructure improvements of land that otherwise would not be attractive to developers. It was not intended to award cash grants to developers planning to build on property with the obvious profit potential of the Port harbor site.

Addressing such TIF abuses, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has proposed changes in the law that would prevent subsidies for private investment.

The Legislature has not acted on these proposals and, in any case, the city is committed to the Blues Factory incentive. That gift was promised by previous elected officials, but the majority of the current Common Council proved to be generous in its own right last week by giving the developer permission to exceed height limits required by the city’s zoning ordinance.

The ordinance requires downtown buildings to be no higher than 35 feet. By 5-2 votes, the Council approved a building that will reach 45 feet in height and a connected silo that will be 52 feet high.

The Blues Factory drew vocal opposition from the people of Port Washington because it would block public lake views. The building that is now almost assured to take its place is wider and higher and fills the entire width of the lot at the north edge of the downtown marina. 

The silo, an unsightly intrusion into a scenic lakefront, will be a five-story-high industrial structure emblazoned in large block letters with the name of business occupying the building—Inventors Brewpub.

Residents who live near the site voiced their objections to the silo before the Council voted to approve it. One of them asked, “How would you feel if you look out your bedroom window, your living room window and saw a giant silo that said Inventors Brewpub?”

The complaints of condo dwellers whose views will be spoiled are valid, but the silo will be an affront to all city residents, including those who do not own lake views but visit the marina district to enjoy the water vistas that have long been a Port Washington treasure.

The owner of TBF Development defended the silo by telling aldermen that it would be a symbol of Port Washington comparable to the city’s iconic lighthouse and the historic Smith Bros. sign.

It’s not likely anyone took that seriously, but it is true that the silo will be a symbol. As long at it stands, it will be a symbol identified with the city’s epic lakefront development mistake.

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Ozaukee Press

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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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