Despite woes, Mayor Barrett optimistic on city’s future

September 28, 2015
By Steve Waring 

Special to The Milwaukee Times


Despite a rise in homicides, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Bar- rett believes there is tremen- dous positive energy and op- portunity in the heart of the city. His challenge, he said, was to extend that “positive momentum” out into the Milwaukee neighborhoods with higher crime rates and fewer employment opportu- nities. Mayor Barrett shared his vision during an exclusive 45-minute interview with The Milwaukee Times at his office in City Hall on September 4. In describing a typical day, he said he relies heavily on his smartphone and described the one type of text message he dreads receiving above all others.

Death text messages are with him always “Increasingly I’m check- ing the text messages that I get from the Police Depart- ment,” Mayor Barrett said, “and I am hoping that I will not see a message from Sgt. Eddie Strong, the head of my security detail… but there was yesterday,” he said as his voice trailed off. Then he began reading some of the details from a shooting. “I get those at all hours of the day,” Mayor Barrett said… “I used to get phone calls whenever there was a homicide, but with technolo- gy it’s just faster to do it like this and so we switched to text messages on April 2014. I have never erased one of those from my phone and that is purposeful in that I don’t think anyone should erase this from their mind”

Police body cameras Crime and jobs are Mayor Barrett’s two top priorities. He noted that the Milwau- kee Police Department will become one of the first large American cities to equip all officers with body cameras. Mayor Barrett acknowledged that there were probably a higher percentage of police stops in high crime areas of the city, but he said that the number of citations be- ing written is down as are the number of citizen com- plaints.

Mayor Barrett has been involved in a number of ren- ovation projects downtown as well as some in the neigh- borhoods. On the day he was interviewed by The Milwaukee Times he also attended a press conference at 34th and Auer Streets where Gorman and Co., is renovating a number of foreclosed houses using inmates who have recently been released from prison. Mayor Barrett lauded the program as a four-way win. It improved the local housing stock, provided much-need- ed jobs, it enjoyed bipartisan political support and it was a public-private partnership.

Mayor Barrett also singled out the new Northwest- ern Mutual Insurance office building under construction downtown, praising it for the number of minorities who have been hired to work on the project. He has been less successful renovating the 80-acre parcel near 27th Street where the A.O. Smith Company built automotive frames. Using transportation funds made available by the Obama Ad- ministration, had awarded the Transportation De- partment a $1 billion grant sought by Wisconsin under then-Governor Jim Doyle to convert part of the A.O. Smith plant into a passenger rail maintenance facility after two new Hiawatha Amtrak route trains were constructed at the site.

State must pay $10 million for trains mothballed Mayor Barrett shakes his head in bewilderment as he mentions that a judge recent- ly awarded a further $10 mil- lion in fines to the railroad manufacturing company whose contract with the state Governor Walker and the Republican-led State Legisla- ture declined to fund. “The taxpayers of this state paid out more than $40 mil- lion for those two trains that are now in mothballs and we don’t even own them,” he said. “We don’t have any- thing to show for it.” Despite that setback the city, with some financial as- sistance from the state, has made a considerable invest- ment in the Century City development area in order to attract a new industry by cleaning up environmentally contaminated areas and tear- ing down a number of unsal- vageable structures.

Days for high-paying manufacturing jobs are over Should the Milwaukee Common Council approve the arena financing deal, Mayor Barrett said he be- lieves the neighborhoods will benefit from the increased number of jobs created. “I am very cognizant of the economic strife that a large percentage of people in the city are living under,” he said. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that there is no one magic potion, but the way I’ve described it is I view it as a $500 million dol- lar public works project that is being paid for with $250 million in private money. I want it to create hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs.

I want as many people from the city as possible to get jobs from this project and I think you’d be surprised if the Mayor didn’t say that. “I think there will be ancillary development,” he said. “Part of the challenge we have is that the days of high-paying, middle class manufacturing jobs are over. I think we have made some strides in hiring people of color in the health care in- dustry and in IT. We have to make sure that we give peo- ple the skills they need [to get a job]. That doesn’t necessar- ily mean a master’s degree, but you have to have some training to get hired.”