The deal arrived packaged as a fatted calf. Century City Business Park on Milwaukee’s North Side would gain another tenant, its third and largest since the city took over the site of the former A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive complex. At its height, the space buzzed with activity from thousands of workers, only to turn into a worthless, skeletal eyesore when the bosses left town in 2006.
The arriving company, Strauss Brands, was both local and longstanding, founded 83 years ago and operating out of the south suburb of Franklin. In exchange for a $1 deed to city-owned land and $4.5 million in potential grant money, Strauss pledged to build a $60 million new headquarters and meat processing center that would bring 250 unionized jobs with a starting pay up to $17 per hour to a community where upward mobility is scarce. If things went well, the number of workers would double in the next decade, and the added industrial density would revive nearby shopping districts.
But the deal died fewer than seven weeks after its Sept. 4 rollout, killed by back-to-back blows – first from 7th District Ald. Khalif Rainey, who withdrew his support on Oct. 18, and then from Strauss itself, which backed out three days later. This, despite all sides seemingly supporting the same goal of creating an economic magnet in a disadvantaged portion of the city.
Ald. Cavalier Johnson still hopes to strike a successful resolution, feeling divisions can yet be overcome, however unlikely it now seems. Johnson’s 2nd District borders Rainey’s, and the fates of their constituents are often intertwined.
“A month or so after this had gone down, folks in my district were desperate enough to steal from the Starbucks. Now that place is closed,” Johnson says. “Thirty blocks down the street, we missed an opportunity to bring in jobs where folks would have made a living wage.”
He believes incendiary actors stirred up bad memories around meatpacking. “When people think about [Strauss], they think about what was present down in the Menomonee Valley – the old Cargill,” Johnson says. “I’m sensitive to that because I got family members that used to work down there. And the smells that emanated from there were awful.”
Johnson says if Strauss were an Upton Sinclair set piece, he would not approve of the company moving near his mother-in-law or her neighbors. But Strauss, he notes, is hailed as a union shop and a leader in humane treatment of animals. And when he visited the site of Strauss’ present operation in Franklin, he found nothing offensive. He believes if residents near Century City went to Franklin to see for themselves, they’d change their minds.
CERTAINLY, ADDITIONAL information would go a long way toward defusing tension. Throughout the failed sprint to approval, residents near Century City felt left in the dark as to the project specifics.
“I don’t know if I saw it so much as a fight as I did a lack of information,” says Mabel Lamb, executive director of Sherman Park Community Association, which borders Century City to the south. “Our position is and has been and always will be that residents did not have enough information.”
The official story that spread through the community was viewed as suspect when fuller details of the operations became widely known, such as the fact that approximately 500 cows would be killed on-site daily.
“When I first heard about [Strauss], I was told it was a meatpacking place, which is very different in my mind than a slaughterhouse bringing in live animals,” Lamb says. “What street are they going down? Are they coming up 27th Street? Are they going down 35th Street? Are they going down Capitol Drive? People want to know that.”
Fears grew that the site could emanate foul stenches and possibly attract vermin. Residents searching for answers found opponents eager to fill in the gaps.
“There was significant misinformation, particularly on the radio, that was politically motivated. It characterized it as not an investment people would want to see in their backyard.”
– ROCKY MARCOUX, CITY DEVELOPMENT COMMISSIONER
Fred Royal Jr., the president of the NAACP’s Milwaukee branch who sought to challenge Rainey in this spring’s election, says his campaign dropped literature at more than 15,000 residences around Century City that played up the lack of dialogue with residents.
“It wasn’t so much disapproval of Strauss Brands. It was a lack of input from the citizens in that district as to what they would like to see go into that space,” he says. “The city has invested $40 million in that development, but they have not asked the citizenry what type of utilization of that facility they would like to see. Just to make it an industrial complex seems to be shortsighted.”
Royal was one of four candidates to challenge Rainey and the only to declare his candidacy before the Strauss proposal became public. (The primary was held Feb. 18 while this issue was being printed.) He thinks the city should explore using some of the space to create entertainment or recreation opportunities for nearby residents. He also questions if the jobs attached to Strauss’s proposal are good enough. “When I retired from General Motors, I was making $30 an hour. Now, they’re talking about good-paying jobs at $15 an hour. That’s a regression, in my opinion.”
A LOUDER AND MORE fundamental adversary arose in the form of activist group Slaughter Free Milwaukee.
“There’s a reason why slaughterhouses aren’t built in urban areas: because they have a lot of detrimental effects,” says Slaughter Free Milwaukee organizer Rachel Golusinski, a Sherman Park resident who claims human rights violations and pollution go hand-in-hand with meat processing plants.
The group quickly raised volunteers to bolster its seven-organizer core, frequenting community events near Century City to spread opposition. Its most significant show of force came at the Milwaukee Common Council chambers on Oct. 15. At the time, Rainey railed against the group, accusing them of placing livestock over quality of life for black residents near Century City. But a few days later, he dropped his support for Strauss. Calls to Rainey for comment on this story were not returned.
Johnson still believes Rainey’s statements – that Slaughter Free Milwaukee’s priorities are misplaced – were dead on. “[The protest] did not sit well with me. They had an objective, they got that objective accomplished, and they left the people that they claim they were going to help,” he says. “Strauss isn’t going anywhere. These jobs will still exist. It’s just a matter of will they be accessible to people who can’t get out to Franklin.”
Golusinski says Slaughter Free Milwaukee remains focused on digging into Strauss, working to verify the stories of people claiming to be former employees and obtain public records from the USDA.
JOHNSON CONCEDES that the city could have made a better case for the Strauss agreement. “The city does have some fault,” he says. “We should have done a better job with outreach to folks on what was coming.”
Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux disputes notions that project specifics were withheld or obscured, citing several open government meetings where every detail was discussed. But he does acknowledge there was no community meeting during the crucial run-up to the approval votes. (One neighborhood meeting took place in December, nearly two months after Strauss publicly backed out.)
“We don’t have an issue in terms of providing information, but the Department of City Development doesn’t call neighborhood meetings. Those are called by the local alderperson. In this case, there was no meeting requested,” Marcoux says.
Marcoux sees the backlash as the product of a political disinformation campaign. “There was significant misinformation, particularly on the radio, that was politically motivated,” he says. “It characterized it as not an investment people would want to see in their backyard.”
Neither Strauss Brands nor the Milwaukee 7 Regional Economic Development Partnership, which helped broker the deal, responded to requests for comment. United Food & Commercial Workers 1473, which represents Strauss workers, declined comment.
If Strauss and Century City’s neighbors don’t reconsider one another, the Department of City Development is now back to its original challenge of finding an employer willing to help rebuild a marginalized community. Whoever steps up must be willing to be extraordinarily accessible and transparent to win over suspicious neighbors who have been burned by employers before.
“This thing was a wasteland when we bought it,” Marcoux says of Century City. “How do we market the site, looking for opportunities for people to work? Because that’s the reason we invested $44 million of money on this site, so that it wouldn’t become the largest junkyard in southeastern Wisconsin.”