Innovation Park proposal gets favorable comments from Plan Commission

Published on: 8/10/2010

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's request for $12 million in city funds to help finance its Innovation Park development, in Wauwatosa, received favorable comments from Plan Commission members at a Monday night meeting.

The commission voted 5-0 to delay action on whether it will recommend approval of the financing plan to the Common Council. That delay was sought by Mayor Jill Didier, who's also commission chair, so more information can be obtained about the financing plan.

Didier's administration is seeking council approval for the financing proposal. And three other commission members - John Albert, Jody Lowe and Gloria Stearns - all made favorable comments about UWM's proposal to develop a science research campus, along with privately developed office, housing and retail space.

That indicates the commission is leaning toward approving the financing plan at its next meeting. The proposal calls for creation of a tax incremental financing district, with the city borrowing money to build roads, sewers and other public improvements at Innovation Park, east of Highway 45 and north of W. Watertown Plank Road.

The city's debt and interest, totaling $18.6 million, would be repaid through property taxes from the privately owned buildings. UWM's academic buildings would be exempt from paying property taxes.

Nine people spoke in opposition to the financing plan at the commission hearing. Most cited concerns about whether enough privately owned buildings would be built in order to generate property taxes needed to pay off the city's debt.

A study by the city's consultant, Springsted Inc., said there likely would be enough property tax revenue to pay off the debt within the 27-year payback period allowed under state law. But opponents said that study used too many assumptions about future development, much of which remains speculative.

"I've heard assumptions," said Wauwatosa resident Marcus Robinson. "I know assumptions don't always come true."

Didier said the city's TIF district that helped create the Milwaukee County Research Park also involved a speculative play, with money spent before there were firm commitments for development. That tax district has been successful, she said, with the city's debt to be paid off earlier than initially predicted.

Bruce Block, an attorney for the UWM Real Estate Foundation, said the Innovation Park site will become taxable once a foundation affiliate buys the property later this year for $13.55 million. The land, now owned by Milwaukee County, currently pays no property taxes.

UWM expects to receive a federal grant to help begin building Innovation Park's first building in 2011. That building, which will be taxable, will house research activities by both the university and private firms.

Block also said UWM has been talking with developers about converting the site's historic buildings, which are now vacant, into apartments. That project, to begin in 2011, also would generate property taxes.

Opponents remained skeptical.

"In essence, what we're being sold is a promise of a concept," said resident Jim Goulee.