For the first time in 16 years, there’s a new man in one of the city’s most influential, high-profile and powerful jobs.
Lafayette Crump became commissioner of the Department of City Development in July, replacing Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, whose retirement ended the longest-ever tenure in that role.
Crump, 47, most recently served as chief diversity, vendor and engagement officer at the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee for the Democratic National Convention. He’s also led Prism Technical Management & Marketing Services, a consulting firm that works with developers and general contractors to hire subcontractors led by people of color and women.
His nomination by Mayor Tom Barrett won unanimous approval from the Common Council.
Marcoux, 62, spent 34 years with the city overall and survived contentious reappointment battles in 2012 and 2016. He helped lead a renaissance of Downtown, which had seen a boost in residential development and prominent commercial projects. Some of his critics say that the Downtown boom has come at the expense of opportunities in other city neighborhoods.
As Crump took the reins from Marcoux, they both talked with Milwaukee Magazine about development in the city, Downtown’s rebirth, the coronavirus pandemic and what direction City Development will take under new leadership.
MilMag: Rocky, looking back, what are some of DCD’s most important accomplishments during your tenure?
Rocky Marcoux: Sixteen years is a long time to do this job, but what it has given me is the benefit of getting to know a large number of folks in the community, certainly in the neighborhoods, in the development community and other governmental leaders. I’ve been blessed with an incredible amount of exposure, in a good way, to people who are trying to work every day to make this a better city and better region. Some of the things I’m most proud of are the work we’ve done in the neighborhoods. Certainly, the execution of the Menomonee Valley plan. I feel that was one of our significant accomplishments. We took a plan that had started in (former Milwaukee Mayor John) Norquist’s administration but was just a plan when we got here. We worked with Menomonee Valley Partners and really turned it into an international success story for economic development. Also, I am very proud of the work our team was able to do at Century City. While Century City is definitely a work in progress, no doubt about that, a lot of the hard work has been accomplished in terms of setting the stage – buying the property, remediating the property and demolition of the problem buildings. My hope is that the city will be able to get companies to locate there to bring good, family-supporting jobs to that location.
I’m also very proud of the amount of affordable housing that has gone up – almost 8,000 units since 2004 in the neighborhoods. Also, I’m extremely proud of the fact that the development community has built about 12,000 units of housing Downtown. I am honored to have played a role working on the streetcar and the Milwaukee Lakefront Gateway project.
As for other accomplishments, there’s the reconfiguration of the freeway system. I had the opportunity to work on two freeways, the Lakefront Gateway and the Park East, which was already demolished at the point I became commissioner, but we worked hard with the county on redeveloping the Park East Corridor. And then, certainly, Fiserv Forum and the Brewery project. And finally, and probably one of the most important things, has been the Northwestern Mutual Tower. Not just the physical portion, which is incredibly well-designed, but it sent a signal to the business community when Northwestern Mutual said it not only was going to stay Downtown but grow Downtown. That set off the dominoes of businesses moving Downtown from the suburbs and those that already were here expanding.
We are also starting to change the hearts and minds of the development community to understand that we’re a city where a majority of our residents are persons of color and we need to make sure that population is reflected in the design and construction and, ultimately, in the workforce of everything that is built in this city.
MM: Lafayette, what’s your vision for the department?
Lafayette Crump: I’m glad that Rocky mentioned pride in the work that has been done in the neighborhoods. I think, for whatever reason, some of that gets missed in looking at what’s been accomplished over the last 16 years. It’s certainly something I want to build upon. My vision is ensuring that when DCD is looking at what it can do from a housing standpoint and from bringing businesses into the city of Milwaukee, it does so with respect to ensuring the participation of small businesses and residents while keeping an eye toward what that means for racial equity and advancing the quality of life for people of color. I want to make sure that the promise of Century City can be brought to fruition. I also want to ensure that people who are growing up here find Milwaukee to be a viable place for them to stay and be successful. We also have to have companies that want to be here and employ those people.
How has the pandemic already affected DCD and development and what will be the impact going forward?
LC: It is one more reason why we have to be very expansive in our thinking. We have to look at other models and what’s being done in other cities around the country and around the world. You have to look for those silver linings. I think it’s going to force us and the development community to really be thoughtful about being capable of pivoting, whatever we face.
RM: People are learning to work remotely and that’s going to have a significant impact on how business moves forward. The city is working largely remotely right now, including the Department of City Development. We’ve been able to demonstrate through this experience that we can work remotely but I don’t think that’s ever going to replace an office environment, particularly in government service, where people need a place to come to for many different things. For the projects that were already underway and had their financing in place, we’re seeing those move forward. We’re also seeing a permitting level that has been fairly constant year over year. It will be interesting to see what happens as this sorts itself out and as the financial markets sort themselves out.
This was supposed to be a summer highlighting Milwaukee’s rebirth through major events, most notably hosting the Democratic National Convention. Is the luster of Milwaukee’s renaissance fading?
LC: While we are all incredibly disappointed about what didn’t happen in Milwaukee this summer, this is only a temporary setback. One of the things we’ve been able to see throughout this runup to what would have been an incredible summer, including the Democratic National Convention, which would have drawn the world’s eyes to us in an amazing way, is how people and business and organizations pulled together to win the DNC in the first place. And while we will not have the large number of people coming here, those who have already been here have seen what Milwaukee is capable of and have seen that renaissance. We’re just going to pick that right back up and keep it going. I don’t think by any means that this is a permanent setback.
RM: As Milwaukeeans, we have finally come to appreciate how great this city is. While it certainly would have been great to have 50,000 people from around the world here for our coming out party, the underlying strength of this community in many respects is understanding the greatness that is here already, throughout the city. Obviously, the COVID piece has to be resolved. We’re not seeing a lot of people Downtown now because they still aren’t comfortable going out. But let’s not forget, the Downtown of today is much different from a decade ago. You have a significant number of people that are now living Downtown. Whatever changes COVID has on the office buildings, you still have thousands of people that have moved Downtown. This is their neighborhood. I think those people will continue to support the businesses that are here as we gradually come to grips with how we deal with this.
There has been criticism from time to time that development has been too focused on Downtown at the expense of other neighborhoods. Is development mutually exclusive? How do you address that criticism?
RM: We have to get our arms around the facts. The central business district and the other close-in neighborhoods represent 3.2 percent of the city’s land mass. The city is 96.8 square miles. You are talking about that very small sliver of the city accounting for 22 percent of the property taxes. As anyone who has been awake over the past decade knows, property taxes are our single biggest means of income for the city. That’s because Downtown is dense and there are more people there and you’ve got skyscrapers so, of course, you’re going to have more value Downtown. But it’s important to remember that the tax base isn’t just being spent Downtown. The tax base is being spent out in the neighborhoods, paying for cops, firefighters, libraries and things that our citizens want and deserve. There has to be a greater appreciation of the economic power that Downtown brings to the whole city.
In terms of the neighborhoods, we’ve done more tax increment financing projects outside the Downtown area than we have Downtown. That’s a fact. Some people just don’t want to believe it, particularly if your narrative is that Downtown gets everything, and the neighborhoods get nothing. We have taken risks in the neighborhoods. Some have paid off, some have not. A good example is Century City. Because we didn’t get the manufacturing piece built there, there are very little taxes being paid there right now.
What we’ve tried to address and, obviously we haven’t been 100 percent successful, is the inequity that exists in many of our neighborhoods that’s generally caused, first and foremost, by racial issues. Racism is the single biggest issue that faces not just Milwaukee but this region. We’ve got to figure it out and get beyond the racism that has existed in our city. That’s driven a lot of development decisions. It also has driven, unfortunately, some locational decisions by manufacturers. We are dealing with a lot of poverty in some of the neighborhoods because there is a lack of jobs. When there is a lack of jobs, there’s a lack of development. We’ve tried to focus resources in the neighborhoods, that’s why we completed the (Menomonee) Valley, that’s why we did Century City and the Komatsu development at the harbor. Ultimately, the equity issue that’s driven by racial injustice has got to be resolved if we are truly going to be successful moving forward.
How do you bring more equity to development in the city, and are you worried about gentrification?
LC: We certainly worry about gentrification and displacement. It’s important that we recognize that as the costs go up in those areas, the people who are already there, particularly people of color, are being displaced. I want to make sure that we are increasing value in parts of the city but doing so without displacement. I want people of color as a whole to participate more fully in economic success. If we are ever going to get to a place of equality, people of color are going to have to disproportionately benefit from some things. We can’t just always hope that everyone is benefitting equally. We will never get to a place of equality if we have an opportunity that everyone can participate in equally.
When we are looking at development in the neighborhoods, we need to remember that Downtown is a neighborhood. When there is development Downtown, that benefits the city as a whole. We cannot lose sight of a strong central business district. Development in the neighborhoods does sometimes lag a bit because that’s not where people show up and want to do things. So, we’ve got to be even more intentional about making sure that there are viable options in the neighborhoods and explaining to developers why there is value there. One way you do that is by championing things like the ACRE (Associates in Commercial Real Estate) program that DCD has been part of helping and a number of other organizations have helped with over the years. When you find people who are interested in development who have grown up in different parts of the city, you find a way to work with them and support some of their ideas. Then you will get organically more development in the neighborhoods because they are people who have not just have an economic interest in what’s going to happen there but also an emotional attachment to improving some of these areas. If we are not supporting people who come from these neighborhoods we will be missing out on opportunities.
What types of development would you’d like to see in the neighborhoods?
LC: Although each district in the city doesn’t want to be a self-contained entity cut off from the rest of the city, people in every neighborhood want the things that everyone wants in their neighborhood. Everybody would like to be able to get to a grocery store in a short period of time, have restaurants that they are interested in and have shopping districts in their neighborhood. I want to make sure that each district has things that people want, both necessities and to have fun.
MM: Lafayette, you have been living in Wauwatosa but are required to move into the city. Where will you live?
LC: I haven’t decided yet (as of late August) but I’m really excited to move back into the city. I grew up at 27th and Burleigh and I’m thinking between being somewhere that’s already got all the places that you want to go to or being in a part of our city that is growing and on the precipice of greater development. There are a lot of great areas in the city.
MM: Rocky, what appeals to you about living in Milwaukee?
RM: I came here to go to Marquette. I met my wife, Chris, and that played a significant role in me staying here. She’s a Marquette grad as well. We decided that this was a place where we wanted to start a family. Milwaukee is full of beautiful neighborhoods, has an incredible lakefront, the river system, major league sports of all disciplines, and you have an incredibly vibrant arts community. The cultural assets here are second to none. Our parks system is exquisite. There’s an excellent quality of life, and it’s affordable. Chris and I decided Milwaukee is for us. We’re not selling our home. We’re not moving. We live in Washington Heights. We love the neighborhood and being part of what’s happening in Milwaukee.
MM: One of you is active on social media, the other isn’t. What are you thoughts on using social media in a professional environment?
LC: Certainly, a challenge of social media, particularly when you are in a position of prominence or decision making, is having to be very careful about what you say because it is very difficult to read tone. If a message that may be jokingly stated or sarcastic doesn’t come off right, then suddenly you’ve got a firestorm to deal with. In a position like this, it’s one where you want to be extremely careful. In terms of why I use social media, it’s one of those things where you are able to connect with people whether they are your closest friends or the community at large in such a vast and dynamic way. I’d be kidding myself if I thought one tweet or one Facebook post was going to suddenly sway a group of people or a community, but you do see certain things that start with one post and eventually there are people thinking about things in a different way. I do want to make sure that our city’s accounts are getting information out there to the public because people do use social media regularly and we are not reaching all the people we can if we do not use those tools as well.
RM: The department has had some active social media accounts, and we certainly can do better in that regard. My social media presence is not very pronounced. The reason for that is that I don’t ever want to get out in front of the mayor. One thing that I’ve been prolific about is speaking engagements. I prefer to be with people and interacting in a face-to-face situation. Some people may say that is old school, but so be it. That’s been my style. I’m certainly not against social media. It obviously plays a huge role in the world right now and will likely play an even bigger role moving forward.
MM: Century City and Northridge Mall come to mind as big challenges for the city over the years in terms of development. How do you boost interest in Century City and how do you address the situation regarding the former Northridge property?
LC: You just can’t have these big parcels like these stay dormant forever. Not that Century City is dormant but there is certainly more that can be done there. It is not just about waiting for people to come to us with ideas. It’s about being proactive about reaching out and considering ideas and trying to foment interest instead of waiting.
RM: I would say that Century City already is something positive for the city. We took a 150-acre site that was given up for dead. We cleaned it up. We brought new life to it. We brought hope to it. We invested $47 million. True and complete success will be when every single acre is filled with manufacturers or other businesses that are bringing family-supporting jobs. I think it will happen. Our record has been very public in terms of the companies we have not been able to get there for a number of reasons. But I believe that if businesses put aside some of the preconceptions they have about that location, I think they will discover that it’s the place they really want to be because that’s where the available labor force is.
MM: How well do you know each other? Have you worked closely with each other?
LC: I’ve known Rocky in some capacity over the last 15 years or so through the work we’ve done at Prism Technical. Rocky has always been gracious with his time. People say Rocky is a bulldog and a cheerleader for the city of Milwaukee. What you don’t hear enough about Rocky is his warmth and graciousness. I have never come away from an encounter with Rocky not feeling like my day is a little bit brighter. The best thing you could ever hear when you are coming into a position like this and following someone who has had such an impact is that he is not going to be over my shoulder, but he will always be there if I need him. That means the world to me.
RM: I have nothing but respect for Lafayette. He comports himself as a gentleman. He’s a person of incredible integrity. He is a person who believes in equity and, more importantly, has demonstrated that throughout his career. He’s incredibly intelligent. We have this team here at DCD that I believe is formidable. When I look at the person who is taking over, when Mayor Barrett announced that it was going to be Lafayette, you can rest assured that Rocky Marcoux breathed a lot easier knowing that this department will be in incredibly good hands moving forward. The important work that we’ve brought about will continue but he’s going to bring different perspectives and opportunities and he’s not afraid to advance big ideas. I think the mayor made an absolutely great choice and I’m very pleased that the Common Council gave such incredible support and confirmed him with a resounding vote of confidence. That shouldn’t be lost on anyone, particularly knowing the history of certain confirmations.