By Alison Dirr
February 10, 2020
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It was with this summer’s Democratic National Convention that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett began his State of the City address Monday, highlighting the call he received right after his 2019 address with the news that Milwaukee was chosen to host the national political convention.
He said Milwaukee wasn’t selected solely because Wisconsin is a swing state in this year’s presidential election but rather because there is something special going on in the city.
“The convention gives us a chance to tell our story and we’re eager to do so,” Barrett told those gathered at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino Monday morning. “It's a story of hard-working, resilient people, innovative companies, great natural beauty, and cultural and entertainment assets galore.”
In the 35-minute address, Barrett said the city was moving forward but also faces challenges. He highlighted dropping crime figures, and efforts on housing, early childhood education, solar energy and business development.
He said he wanted everyone to feel a positive connection to the convention that is expected to bring 50,000 people to the city when it takes place July 13-16. And so, he announced, the Fiserv Forum will be open for public tours in the days leading up to the convention.
He said he wanted people to see the convention space, the construction and the location that will capture the nation’s attention when the DNC is in town.
He highlighted the contributions of the Forest County Potawatomi and the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino — including a $10 million sponsorship of the city’s streetcar, collaboration with the city on making a pitch for the DNC, its Heart of Canal Street campaign and other efforts.
And, he said, the hotel’s employees “embody the diversity of our city.” Sixty-five percent of the hotel’s nearly 2,700 employees are people of color, 53% are female and nearly two-thirds are Milwaukee residents, he said.
He laid out a positive vision for the city, saying that it is safer and more inclusive and its economy is stronger. He also said the city is working to increase economic opportunity that is shared fully and fairly.
Barrett highlighted dropping crime numbers, from homicides to non-fatal shootings to carjackings. And he acknowledged the work of the Police Department and the city’s Office of Violence Prevention and its approach of addressing violence as a public health issue.
“Let me tell you why this is so important: For decades Milwaukee relied solely on the police to fight crime,” he said. “Now we are prioritizing prevention, working with the community, and expanding our approach to making Milwaukee safer.”
Barrett also touched on a concern among some long-time residents near downtown that they’ll be forced out of their homes because of rising property taxes caused by increasing property values.
He said that funding from private donors allowed for the creation of the MKE United Anti-Displacement Fund to help eligible homeowners by providing resources to offset the financial impact of increasing property taxes.
More than 110 homeowners qualified for the program that is available for residents of the Halyard Park, Harambee, Brewers Hill and Walker’s Point neighborhoods, he said.
Barrett highlighted business development in the city but also expressed frustration with the collapse of a plan for Strauss Brands LLC to move its slaughterhouse and meat processing plant from Franklin to Century City Business Park on Milwaukee's north side.
He said Strauss' plan was shut down before the company had a chance to tell its story, leaving the neighborhood without good union jobs.
"Those who spread falsehoods should be ashamed," he said.
Barrett also announced the creation of a new early childhood development initiative, dubbed the Milwaukee Early Childhood Education 2025 partnership. He said the city's success is tied to giving children an equitable start.
The city's Health Department struggled for months after it came to light that the department had failed to provide services for the families of children with lead poisoning, or at least failed to document its efforts. The fallout included the January 2018 resignation of Health Commissioner Bevan Baker.
In his speech Monday, Barrett said that during his tenure, partnerships with the federal government, local health centers, doctors and schools have led to a 70% reduction in lead poisoning in Milwaukee's children.
"Our lead program is moving forward," he said, highlighting a $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to abate lead hazards.
He also said the city has allocated millions to eliminating lead hazards.
Barrett also highlighted efforts in solar energy. He said the city wants to get at least a quarter of its energy from renewable energy by 2025 and is taking an "all of the above" approach. That includes creating the "largest solar energy system" in the city's history on eight acres of city-owned land near Mitchell International Airport. We Energies will build and maintain the project that will return $90,000 or more to the city each year, he said.
He said the city's streetcar, dubbed The Hop, will host its millionth rider later this month and has a 99% on-time record. Barrett also announced that We Energies gave a $100,000 sponsorship to support the streetcar's operations during the DNC.
"We are starting to get the attention we deserve, because special things are happening in Milwaukee," he said at the close of his address.
Challenging Barrett in his re-election bid are state Sen. Lena Taylor, Ald. Tony Zielinski and Paul Rasky.
In a statement, Zielinski said the city has significant unaddressed problems, including racial disparities, child poverty, violent crime, infrastructure and lead. He said Barrett had "misplaced priorities" on issues such as the streetcar.
Zielinski also said Barrett has declined to debate him.
Barrett said there would "absolutely" be debates after the Feb. 18 primary and that he and Zielinski have had forums together.