By Keene Winters
At some point, we cannot keep chalking it up to bad luck.
We have to ask: Why can’t the City of Wausau find reliable developers for its signature downtown projects? The unceremonious departures of CBL & Associates, Micon Cinemas and now Frantz Community Investors raises serious questions about the city’s ability to select developers and ensure that taxpayers’ interests are protected.
Back in January of 2016, while still serving as a city alderman, I wrote an op-ed opposing the deal to give CBL & Associates $4.1 million to “save the Wausau Center Mall.” Their plans to keep it a retail shopping center made no sense given current trends, and the publicly available data suggested they did not have the financial strength to carry-out the venture. Then, we found out that they were under investigation by the FBI. How did we ever fall head over heels for CBL?
Similarly, I think everyone in town finds in inexplicable that Rialto Capital Investment (CBL’s successor) and Micon Cinemas could come to blows over the non-loadbearing wall between the former Sears building and the rest of the mall. Was there debate about who owned the wall? Was sound penetration a problem? Whatever it was, it seemed like there should have been an easy fix. Moreover, with both sides looking to the city for financial support, city officials should have had the leverage to broker a deal, right?
While the widely popular movie theater project is not dead, the prolonged fuss caused Micon’s financing partners to withdraw, and it is not clear if or when they can be replaced.
This week, the celebrated Frantz Community Investors group withdrew from the riverfront project due to financial problems, leaving the city “0 and 3” in its selection of developers through requests for proposals (RFPs).
In fact, I have always thought the riverfront project has been in trouble since the much-vaunted city RFP only garnered two responses, Frantz Community Investors and SC Swiderski, LLC. There are just not that many opportunities to sculpt 16 acres of blank, urban waterfront. It should have been a developer’s dream. We were supposedly offering a rare gem and only got two bidders! It’s hard to characterize that as a successful RFP.
Now, city staff is asking the council to approve the Quantum Ventures as the replacement for Frantz. There will not be any other choices. Staff will just present a sales pitch instead of giving policymakers alternatives and the pros and cons of each.
Quantum Ventures is a newly formed business entity brought together by Mike Frantz with new partners because his financing partners backed out of Frantz Community Investors. It may sound like a simple fix, but it is not clear that Mr. Frantz’s financial woes are over or that the new entity will be able finance the project in the long run. Frantz is named in at least two open lawsuits in Wisconsin alone.
I’ve sat through presentations where city staff assured us that we were getting the best of the best as partners for these projects, and that is clearly not the case.
We can and should do better.
Wausau has two attorneys, two CPAs, two engineers, one senior economic development professional and a bona fide urban planner on staff. The city has never been shy about hiring consultants to get things done. So, why don’t we have a better process in place to attract and select more qualified and reputable developers for these very important, large-scale projects?
This is a critical question that our mayor and our council should take to heart. They have supervisory and oversight responsibilities. It is hard to argue that “0 and 3” is even good enough for government work. We need competence. With millions of dollars and our community’s future at stake, perhaps it is time to start holding people accountable to a higher standard.
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