By Tom Ganser


On Mar. 12, four candidates appearing on the April 5 ballot for the Whitewater Common Council participated in a forum sponsored by the Whitewater Area League of Women Voters.

Forum participants included: Aldermanic District 1 incumbent member Patrick Wellnitz and challenger Kenneth Kienbaum along with incumbent Lynn Binnie (Aldermanic District 4) and James Allen (Councilmember at Large), both of whom are running uncontested. James Lagnes, the uncontested candidate for Aldermanic District 2 was unable to attend the forum.

The forum, broadcast live and for replay several times before the election by Whitewater Community Television, was opened by League voter services director Ellen Penwell and moderated by Tom Drucker.

Drucker began by sharing background information submitted in advance by Binnie, Kienbaum and Wellnitz and an opening 2-minute statement by each candidate, after which candidates were given two minutes to respond to eight questions submitted from the audience. Following the final questions, each candidate made a final statement limited to 2 minutes.

Topics included attracting a new grocery store, burying utility lines as part of street improvement projects, promoting innovation and alternative sources of income for the city, bus service, prospects for economic development, priorities for the “bridge to nowhere” and the vacant site of Franklin Middle School, a hotel/library project as an alternative to an addition to Young Memorial Library and addressing the increasing demand for off-campus housing for University of Wisconsin-Whitewater students.

Grocery store issue

The first question was, “What progress is being made toward restoring some major grocery store to Whitewater and how can the Council contribute to the return of grocery shopping to this city?”

Ken Kienbaum      Kienbaum responded first.

“I’m not exactly sure how far this project has gone. I started working on it right after Sentry left. I found a building on the east side where we could put a store that’s available and hopefully we can get a store that’s established to move in to Whitewater,” Kienbaum said.

Kienbaum discussed the need for a grocery store with “good produce and a big variety” and the possibility extending the operations of the Whitewater Market and Farmer Market into the winter by including them as part of a new grocery store.

Allen took advantage of his membership on the Community Development Authority to outline CDA efforts to attract a grocery store business to the city, including sponsoring a listening session and contacting groups at UW-Whitewater “to help us gather empirical data, things about Whitewater that a company coming into Whitewater would need to know.”

Allen said the CDA is considering gathering information through a “market research company who specializes in bringing in grocery stores and does a lot of work in state of Wisconsin” to supplement existing data. “There’s also a small possibility that if a grocer were to come into one of our TIF districts that we could have maybe some small incentive,” he said. “But to be clear, the city can’t tell a grocery store to come and tell them were to build, and I think that’s been kind of a misconception, so our goal is to try to attract a grocery store.”

Wellnitz echoed several of the points Allen made.

“You can’t force somebody to come in. You’ve got to try to attract them. You’ve got to get out there and do some research,” Wellnitz stated.

Wellnitz noted that the limited size of Walmart property prevented making the grocery a bigger part of the store than it currently is. Stressing the importance of the “process” used to attract a grocery store, he said, “I believe if there’s the opportunity there, a business will come in, so it might be just getting the word out that there’s the opportunity for a grocery store.

Binnie said he thinks “it’s going to be an uphill battle certainly,” and said some additional options to consider included the small grocery area in Walgreen and three convenience stores downtown “that do offer a limited supply of groceries.”

Binnie said he has heard that “the two Latino owned stores downtown actually have some very good produce options.” He emphasized the importance of supporting another grocery store “better than how we have supported Sentry in the last several years. The Sentry owners indicated that their business dropped by about 40% when Walmart expanded into groceries.

“I think many of us didn’t take seriously enough the threat that they might just have to close down. If we had taken that more seriously, perhaps we would have supported Sentry better and they might have been able to stay here,” Binnie added.

Generating revenue

Patrick Wellnitz      Wellnitz was the first candidate to respond to the question, “How does the Council support innovation on the part of city staff and employers to reduce cost and generate alternative revenue sources for the city?”

“As a source of revenue, the revenue generated by using excess capacity at the wastewater treatment plant for the treatment of high strength waste for outside vendors,” Wellnitz said. In addition, he cited the generation of gas at the plant that could be used for heating the buildings.

Turning to innovation in city government, Wellnitz said, “City of Whitewater administrators and department heads are a very dedicated group. They’re always coming up with ideas we can trim the budget here, we can do better there. They’re some of the best people as far as using resources.”

Binnie said the discussion about this “has been quite controversial and I think misunderstood in a number of regards. We’re not talking about hazardous waste. We’re talking primarily about food manufacturing byproducts.”

Binnie described the positive impact of the Innovation Center, both in terms of paving the way for UW-W student entrepreneurs to remain in the community after completing their studies and in attracting existing businesses to Whitewater.

“Recently I met a woman who had actually moved her start-up business from Illinois to Whitewater, not to the Innovation Center, but rented a building because of the resources that she found out would be available through the university and the Innovation Center.” Binnie said. “Frankly, the thing that increases revenues the most for us in these days of revenue limits is new construction, and fortunately we’re starting to see enhanced new construction. In particular, we have this business (DP Electronic Recycling Inc.) that’s going to be bringing an electronics recycling business to the business park and projects like that do add considerably to our tax base.”

Kienbaum concurred with Wellnitz and Binnie.

“I think that the project that we’re doing with the wastewater treatment plant is going to help considerably.” He pointed to the “very low interest rate …down almost to 1 percent” for a 20-year loan to complete the project, and the inclusion of the processing of high strength waste that “can recoup the cost” for the city.

Using the biogas generated at the plant to heat water and generate electricity, Kienbaum said, “would cut a big cost on the taxpayers. I think that’s something very important.”

Allen said the Innovation Center is now “completely full at capacity” and the CDA provides grants and loans to start-up businesses “to get them to a point where they’re self-sufficient and we can move them out of the Innovation Center into the community, bringing higher payer jobs to our community.”

Allen said housing is something “the city really needs to take a look at” and that with respect to the Indian Mounds Parkway housing project “the city was very successful in bringing that development in and completing it and doing a good job with it.”

Allen also recommended the city to look at a “higher end housing development area” aimed at business managers, upper level management in the city, and UW-W professors “to attract these types of people and have them (live) within our city.”

Unlike the other three candidates, Allen said he was not sold yet on high waste treatment at the wastewater plant. “I’m glad the city is going to have Baker Tilly come in present so we can learn more about it and I’m always for learning more about something before making a final decision.”

Growth vs. preservation

The next question presented was: “Overall, do you see the next few years as a period of economic growth for Whitewater which the Council can take advantage (of) or is it likely to be a period of retrenchment where the Council has to try to make some of these very difficult decisions about what to preserve and what perhaps to have to have to give up?”

Kienbaum said “the next few years will be some growth as far as Whitewater’s concerned with some new businesses starting up.” He referred to a land lot “out by the roundabout” where “we need to get somebody to move in there (to) increase the tax base so that the citizens don’t have to come up with extra money. And I think like with the Innovation Center there’s several people that are coming up with new businesses that will hopefully benefit Whitewater. I think we have a city manager that does a very good job of keeping the taxes down and getting the projects going.”

James Allen      Allen said “we hope to have a lot of new growth and building in the city of Whitewater. The CDA is constantly marketing and trying to sell land in all of our TIF districts.” According to Allen, there are a few businesses “that are looking at us and that we’re working with to bring more bring more jobs to Whitewater but the recycling plant is certainly a feather in the cap for the community.” From a realistic perspective, Allen went on, “I guess we’re not quite out of trench of having to probably make further cuts but we just need to do those in a business-minded sense and common sense and look at those without affecting as many people as possible and maintaining basic services.”

“I’m an optimist. I think Whitewater will grow,” Wellnitz said. “I think Whitewater’s a great city. Anyone that comes in, it’s hard not to adopt it as your home town.” He said the CDA is doing “a fantastic job of selling Whitewater and its citizens and the workforce” and Downtown Whitewater for “promoting the city, and the downtown Whitewater area, the triangle (and) all the things that they do to get people from the outside into the city.”

Wellnitz tempered his belief that Whitewater, as a “vibrant city,” is not “regressing or slowing down” by saying “a common sense fiscal approach” is still necessary.

“You only still have so much to go around to programs and services, infrastructure, all that. It’s always more than what you have to spend, so even in an upturn you still have to take a hard look and prioritize all your expenses (and) control your finances,” Wellnitz said.

Binnie said he was optimistic “that we are going to have some significant growth. In particular, there’s a general agreement that we need to have another hotel here and currently there’s some initial discussion going on about the possibility hotel/library project which is a very innovative idea that we haven’t heard much about yet.”

Taking a long term perspective, Binnie said the expansion of Highway 12 to four lanes is “probably decades away but when it finally happens it’s going to be a plus to us economically.”

Lynn Binnie      Binnie also said “the biggest fiscal threat to us in the foreseeable future is if we get to the point that the fire department and rescue squad can no longer provide sufficient staffing on essentially a volunteer basis. Our tax basis is significantly impacted by those people working for very low wages and ultimately I think it’s very likely we’ll have it’s very likely we’ll have to go up to referendum in order to be able to support those services.”

Future of library

Turning to the topic of the ongoing discussion of meeting the increased and changing demands for services at the Young Memorial Library, Trucker told the candidates, “The suggestion came up of the possibility of trying to lure a hotel into Whitewater in conjunction with the library expansion that has been on the table for quite a few years. Do you think there’s a legitimate chance that it’s worth the Council’s time to try to pursue?”

Allen said the short answer was, “No, I don’t think it is. The city owns property next to the library if they need an expansion. The library has a full basement that’s not utilized except for storage. Everyone wants something new, but in these economic times we can’t build a whole brand new library.”

In expressing reservations about turning to a hotel/library project as an alternative to expanding the current building, Allen said he didn’t believe “the City of Whitewater or our staff in here has the expertise to draw up something like that legally or in any business plan. So I think we need to look at keeping the library at where we’re at, making the expansions that are necessary (to provide) more reading space and more technology space in library. It’s a beautiful site, it’s not very old, and I think just we need to stick to our guns and location where it’s at and build on what we need to.”

It should be noted that at the beginning of his response to a later question, Allen said regarding tax market credits that only one in five projects is successful in obtaining these credits.

Wellnitz focused his response on discussions taking place in Platteville regarding the construction of a hotel/library that also includes a free clinic on the same property. According to Wellnitz, an incentive for the developers is “a tax market credit” and “after seven years they (will) donate the library back to the city.”

Considering a hotel/library for Whitewater, Wellnitz said, is perhaps “a way to get a library with the facilities they need, the space that they need at a much, much reduced cost to the citizens of Whitewater… so I hate to say ‘No’ to anything without fully gutting it out and taking an informed approach.”

Binnie said he agreed “we need to take a good look at this very innovative approach involving market tax credits for a potential developer. Realistically, in the foreseeable future I don’t think we’re going to get an addition to the library short of some unexpected, gigantic bequest from a citizen. The library board has been working for a decade or more to try to facilitate an expansion and they found that the anticipated construction costs keep climbing disproportionately to normal inflation. The latest estimate was that it would cost about $10 million to put on kind of addition that they feel is needed.”

Suggesting the city could contribute at most, a few million dollars toward the costs, Binnie said “We would need to have private contributions on the order of probably $7-8 million,” which he said was “unrealistic.”

“I believe we need to give this initial concept some serious consideration and see whether it’s worth going farther,” Binnie said.

Kienbaum said the concept of a hotel “to help with the library building is something that needs to be looked at. It might be a good possibility. If it works out it’ll be great, and if it doesn’t, I guess it won’t.” He also suggested that an additional hotel would provide more lodging for people attending UW-W summer camps, athletic events, and other functions.

“I think we need a bigger place for people to stay so that they can have some larger camps, similar to what the university in Madison has. I know we have camps, but probably not as big as it is up there, but we need a better place for people to come to stay temporarily so that we can draw some bigger camps,” Kienbaum said.

Student housing

For his final question of the candidates, Drucker asked, “What can the Council do to avoid the alternation of the character of the City of Whitewater by virtue of lots of students having to move into housing that is in many cases (were) formerly residential houses and have now become student housing?”

Wellnitz acknowledged that university enrollment is growing, Whitewater has a limited market in student housing and “is a fairly small city, when you compare that to the size of the university that’s here.” As a result, he said, student housing in Whitewater “is sometimes a contentious issue.”

Wellnitz credits the zoning regulations, the private sector that provides student housing, and the city with doing a “terrific job, so far, in keeping two very diverse groups working together” and “maintaining your local population and their neighborhood feel and yet be still welcoming to the student population.” He encourages “an open dialogue between everybody” for “a work in progress.”

Binnie shared frustration over the fact that “the state has been so slow to allow construction of a residence hall that was approved years ago,” especially since “student housing at a university is actually as self-funding service. It’s not something that ultimately requires tax payer dollars.”

Binnie said he has been a “strong supporter of targeting areas that we feel are most appropriate for student-oriented housing,” providing as an example the blocks west of campus between Prince Street and Tratt Street.

“In addition we did allow for zoning on an individual basis of housing to the south of university, in areas that had been single family but were increasingly being turned over to student housing, and at the same time, in the Starin Park neighborhood we’ve restricted the number of occupants,” Binnie said, adding he believes these steps have been successful in taking “some of the pressure off the intrusion, you might say, into single family neighborhoods.”

Kienbaum said the latest zoning updates, “that were done are going to help as far as student rentals.” He also suggested the possibility of “10 or 15 acres out there (in the northwest part of the city) that could be developed into student housing that would keep the students close to campus” and avoid the mixing of large buildings with small homes that some residents do not want.

Allen said if the city and university are to grow “we need to open up more opportunities for both student housing and the landlords, and I believe we need to do that by opening up corridors near the university so that we can also maintain single family housing in other areas of the community.” Allen offered as an example the site where Franklin Middle School once stood. Allen concluded, “We need to open up corridors near the university for student housing while maintaining other neighborhoods.”

Views on priorities

After the forum, Kienbaum and Wellnitz were asked their views on important priorities for the Common Council.

Kienbaum said the wastewater treatment plant “is probably the most important. I think the library is probably the next area… I think we need to look at green energy as far as the City of Whitewater… a wind generator or solar panels for city hall that would eliminate the electric bill… at the wastewater treatment plant, if we could eliminate the electric bill and the gas bill, we could almost maintain the sewer rate that it was.”

Wellnitz said the priorities begin with the budget. “The budget’s always the most contentious part of the year. After that, it’s just growing, developing businesses, getting businesses, getting new development. Right now the grocery store is the big issue. The industrial park, the infrastructure (and) balancing the budget, finding the money, getting it all done, and staying within our checkbook.”



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