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Developers to Oconomowoc: Working with the city is like living with a schizophrenic

Developers share insight on city process

May 5, 2010

City of Oconomowoc — Area developer Mike Schutte didn't hold back Tuesday night when asked to give his feedback on what it's like to work with the city. He compared dealings with the city to life with a schizophrenic, saying his frustrations were fueled in the last year by inconsistencies in the city's overall plan for future development and constant additions of more fees and going back on approvals for planned developments.

Schutte was among four other development stakeholders in the area who were asked by Mayor Jim Daley to share their thoughts on city processes and offer suggestions on how it can be better and more attractive to potential developers. Keith Farley, president of Oliver Construction; Jon Spheeris of Spheeris Development Corp. and Prudential Absolute Realtors and developer Jerry Erdmann, who is developing Brennan's Marketplace, also gave input on their experiences and ways the city can make the development process better.

Mike Schutte

Beyond his criticism of the city's alleged inconsistencies, Schutte said the city should invest more money in the purchase of vacant downtown buildings instead of paying millions of dollars to construct new brick sidewalks.

"You keep putting lipstick on the same pig," Schutte said. He said the city needs to formulate a long-range plan for future growth and stick with it. He said every time new leadership is elected, they hire a new firm to come up with a fancy design for the area.

"I've never been called by the planner to give input," he said.

He said all the people who work in the city's industrial park and other places don't live in the city because there isn't enough affordable, higher-density housing. He criticized the larger single-family housing lots the city has approved in its long-range zoning plan and said the Fowler Promenade plan to turn the lakefront property into a parking lot is ridiculous.

"Oconomowoc is no better or worse than its neighbors, but if you want to move forward, you have to make a plan and stick with it," he concluded.

Jon Spheeris

"Time's a deal killer," Spheeris said. He said at one time there were three projects totaling about $45 million that didn't happen because of delays at City Hall. Spheeris said that the potential of those developments happening now is nil, considering the economic climate.

"It's impossible to get developments approved for financing," he said. "I would think you would want to build your tax base, but you have to be friendly .There are too many steps, hoops," he said.

Spheeris also said the city's zoning code has become so convoluted that even the most skilled attorneys have trouble deciphering it. He also said the city Community Development Authority is a great group, but he fails to understand its purpose and sees it as just another layer one must go through.

He suggested staff set guidelines for a developer and meet with them to go over things before their Plan Commission or Common Council appearance.

"You may have to now offer incentives, be more friendly and possibly look into public/private financing. It's up to you, Common Council," he said.

Jerry Erdmann

Erdmann is concerned about the lack of knowledge the Common Council has about a project before discussing it at a regular meeting.

"In my experience, (the) council does not seem to really know what's going on with a development when we may have been in City Hall for six months to a year," working with staff on the project, he said. Erdmann encouraged aldermen to get more involved with what's going on at the staff and committee levels before the project makes it to a Common Council agenda.

He also said the city needs to "take the handcuffs" off Director of Economic Development Bob Duffy and allow him to market Oconomowoc more to potential developers. Erdmann said that instead of managing construction projects, Duffy should be taking Milwaukee-area investors out to lunch and on tours around the city to show what it has to offer. He said Oconomowoc should be at the front of developers' minds, and they should know they have an advocate like Duffy to "take care of them."

Keith Farley

Farley's main concern was streamlining the review and approval process for projects. He read off the many steps and meetings one must go through for the most simple project, concluding even in a best-case scenario, the process could take up to three months.

He suggested staff meet with a developer before their official meeting with staff to iron out any pressing questions beforehand. He said at staff meetings, developers often feel rushed and have only about 10 minutes to address their primary concerns. "A lot of times, this is the first time staff has even seen the project," he said. "The planner could give them a preview, highlight pressure items and even have them go out and look at the site," he suggested.

"I think attendance for all staff should be mandatory" at these meetings or at have a second in command if you can't make it, Farley said.

He also criticized the city's review of submitted documents. Farley said the city does not get back to developers with concerns until sometimes less than 24 hours before they have to submit their final drafts.

Farley thinks not all staff and Common Council members are on the same page as to their vision of the city. He said in the past a project would get CDA approval only to be challenged later by the Common Council or staff.

Summarizing Farley said the city should: reduce special review fees, set incentives for downtown development, set a role for the director of economic development and set timelines for projects. He also said the city needs to sit down and discuss whether it's even prepared for a business the size of Mexican restaurant La Fuente to move into the former On the Deck building.

"Is the city ready for that? Has staff met with consultants to understand the shortfalls? Because you can't have a developer come in and then have to wait. You need clear and concise guidelines for what is needed," he said. "You all must be consistent. Have some meetings off the record," to get on the same page. Be proactive, not reactive. The lack of development is not hurting the developers; it's hurting the city," he said.

The meeting spanned more than two hours and also included input from developer Bob Felker, who owns the strip of retail property on Main Street overlooking Fowler Lake. More on developers' and officials' comments in Tuesday's Living Oconomowoc Focus.

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