On June 11, 2008 Sprawl-Busters reported that a controversial Wal-Mart superstore proposal in Cudahy, Wisconsin had initially been rejected by the city’s Planning Commission, but the developers kept the pressure on and found one Plan Commission member weak enough to switch his vote. But this week, it looks like Wal-Mart’s Cudahy project has flipped back into the negative column. The first negative vote was reported on May 24, 2008. Wal-Mart did not accept ‘no’ for an answer. The retailer decided to give Cuhahy a second chance, and returned with some design changes to a June 10, 2008 meeting of the Plan Commission. Cudahy is a small community with just over 18,000 people with the motto, “Generations of Pride.” The vision for the city’s future is a revitalized downtown that will become the “heart of the South Shore.” The city is right in the middle of updating its Comprehensive Plan, and one of its most prominent goals is creating a “vital downtown.” The emphasis is on a high quality of life, and pedestrian-oriented development. The idea of a new Wal-Mart supercenter ran into rough going in Cudahy from the start. The community doesn’t need another Wal-Mart. There are currently no less than ten Wal-Mart’s within 20 miles of Cudahy, including a discount store 5 miles away in Milwaukee, and a supercenter 18 miles away in Sturtevant, Wisconsin. There are two Wal-Mart Supercenters opening about 5 miles away on S. 27th St in Franklin and in Milwaukee. Also Woodman’s recently opened a 200,000 plus sq ft store in Oak Creek which is all grocery, roughly 5 miles away. The idea of a Wal-Mart supercenter first surfaced in November of 2007, when Wal-Mart offered to build their store in an abandoned site called Iceport. According to CudahyNow, many of the 100 people who came to that first information meeting were cool to the idea of the retailer using the Iceport parcel. “We do not need another outlet for cheap Chinese crap,” one of the evening’s speaker bluntly stated. The developer, Continental Properties, outlined tentative plans for the “Cudahy Station,” on a 26-acre parcel south of East Layton Avenue. The company’s purchase agreement is with Sportsites LLC, which planned at one point to develop the Powerade Iceport, a regional ice hockey center. The $35 million project fell through in 2003. The Cudahy Wal-Mart was presented as a 137,577 s.f. store. This is on the smaller end of Wal-Mart supercenters, but a company spokeswoman added, “We need to start looking at some of these smaller prototypes because that is what the customer wants. (The Cudahy store) would be a more flexible prototype, something that you have never seen before.” Continental said in another phase of the project a hotel and convention center was planned, plus a water park or business incubator. Wal-Mart told the city it was the “best shot” at finding a company with pockets deep enough to make the Iceport property a destination. Wal-Mart promised that it would not seek money from the city for environmental remediation work needed at the site, or for any other part of the project. “There are not a lot of companies that can afford to do all that work, but Wal-Mart can afford it,” she told city officials. But Cudahy Mayor Ryan McCue poured ice water on the Iceport plan. He told CudahyNow that his vision was to improve the city’s downtown, assist small businesses, and improve the city’s image. “I am not a fan of Wal-Mart,” Mayor McCue said. “I do not feel that Wal-Mart follows the spirit of the Cudahy master plan.” The chilly reception Wal-Mart received forced Continental Properties to keep tinkering with the plan, in a frantic effort to win back public support. In February of 2008, the Cudahy Community Development Authority recommended approval of a new plan from Continental. Under a revised plan, Wal-Mart found a new partner: a soccer training academy for the Milwaukee Wave. “It’s long been our dream to have a training home, as well as a place to develop and grow the game throughout southeastern Wisconsin and beyond,” a spokesman for the Milwaukee Wave said. The developer agreed to move the buildings closer to the street, and to improve pedestrian access. “We believe that by working with the city, we have come up with a better project,” Continental said in late April. “We believe that this project would be a welcome addition to Cudahy and southern Milwaukee County.” As time went on, the project started to become known as the “Milwaukee Wave’s plan” for a soccer training academy, with Wal-Mart hiding behind the goal posts. But in early May, the Wave and Wal-Mart both failed to score when the Cudahy Plan Commission rejected the Cudahy Station development. The vote against the plan was 4-3, with Cudahy Mayor Ryan McCue casting one of the no votes. “I’m stunned,” a spokesman for the Wave said. “I’m not giving up.” But Mayor McCue replied, “The plan commission voted against Continental’s proposed use. Continental Properties is still able to submit alternate proposals.” Two weeks later, Wal-Mart came back — but little had changed with the plan. By putting the buildings closer to the street, the developer said it now had a “hard urban edge,” and walking paths were added. Pressure was also put on Mayor McCue, who said in his campaign for Mayor last year that a Wal-Mart would hurt the city’s image. In a letter to the Milwaukee Journal, the Mayor repeated his position that Cudahy “can do better than a big box retailer at that location.” In June of 2008, Wal-Mart picked up the one vote it needed — and it wasn’t the Mayor’s. The Milwaukee Journal reported that the Plan Commission had voted 4-3 in support of the plan, because Craig Faucett, who sits on the Plan Commission but also serves as the city’s director of engineering, changed his vote to Yes. “It had large buildings,” Faucett admitted, “but people could easily walk across the street to the stores.” He depicted Wal-Mart as an auto-oriented facility that didn’t fit with the city’s master plan. But Faucett said he supports the plan now — but only if Wal-Mart comes up with ‘sufficiently attractive’ architectural plans, according to the newspaper. Another Commissioner told the Continental Properties that their plan “is a giant parking lot still.” Another Commissioner who voted against the plan described it as “suburban-type development in a downtown urban area.” This week, the Journal Sentinel updated the Wal-Mart battle. The Common Council voted against the project’s development agreement. In a 3-2 vote on December 2, 2008, the Council rejected the memorandum of understanding between the city and developer. Rejection of the memorandum stops work on a more detailed development agreement. A spokesman for the developer gave the city a blunt warning. “The longer it takes for a project like this, the less likely it is to happen,” he said. “We’re evaluating all of our options.” During this delay, plans for the indoor soccer academy have been delayed, and Continental was focusing only on the Wal-Mart piece of the deal. True to his word, Mayor Ryan McCue voted against the plan again.
The Mayor pointed out that the developer does not have a solid commitment with the Milwaukee Wave for the soccer facility. “There’s no guarantee of a destination” the Mayor said. McCue noted that the city’s new Comprehensive Plan will offer a better vision for the property. One of the Councilors who voted for the plan told the newspaper, “Somebody actually wants to come to your city and develop something – even though it’s a Wal-Mart – and bring 300 jobs, it’s hard to say no.”
But this project did not mean 300 new jobs, and the Common Council understood that many of the jobs would be transferred from existing merchants. The developer was prepared, at its expense, to tear down the partially built Iceport building, and to perform an environmental clean up of the site. But once the City Council rejected the Wal-Mart plan, they went on to vote to tear down the Iceport building and sue the current owner in a foreclosure action. In this way, the city will try to regain control over the site. The Common Council also could have stopped the plan by not approving the extension of local streets through the site. The “Cudahy Station” started off as a retail center with a huge Wal-Mart, but it changed into a soccer team’s training academy, that just happened to have a Wal-Mart twice the size of the soccer buildings. The Cudahy Plan Commission and the Council kept the focus on the Wal-Mart, even as the retailer tried to catch a free ride on the goodwill for the Milwaukee Wave. Mayor Ryan McCue made it clear that a suburban big box store on the edge of the city was incompatible with the planning process that Cudahy has been engaged in for several years now. Some Mayors might have been wooed by the promise of additional tax revenues, but McCue focused on the city’s downtown plans, and the damage that Wal-Mart could bring to that plan. The Milwaukee Wave became the sugar coating on the bitter pill, but the Common Council just wasn’t ready to swallow the plan. Readers are urged to email Cudahy Mayor Ryan McCue at [email protected] with this message: “Mayor McCue, Thank you for your courageous vote against the Wal-Mart plan on the Iceport site. You are right that Cuhady can do better than a big box at that site. This project would only hurt your downtown revitalization efforts. Wal-Mart is incompatible with the goals of your Comp Plan. All that Wal-Mart would do is force a couple of Pick ‘N Saves to close. This is not economic development, and residents who thought that Wal-Mart would lower taxes or raise property values should be challenged to find one town in Wisconsin where that took place. Once Wal-Mart is in, they would hassle you over their assessment, and seek ways to avoid paying their state income taxes as well. This is not a good neighbor, and not the path to economic growth. The Common Council made the right vote, and if Continental should ever come back with another Wal-Mart plan, I hope the Council will reject it once again.