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Walker Fails In Economic Development

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on January 27, 2010

This morning, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Scott Walker is again failing at economic development in Milwaukee County:

Milwaukee County supervisors faulted County Executive Scott Walker on Monday, saying he hadn’t developed a plan or designated staff to promote financing aid that could boost local economic development.

Two major federal lending programs could be tapped by the county to assist private developers by lowering borrowing costs, but the county has been slow to market the aid, supervisors said.

“That’s the problem – we don’t have the staff and we really don’t have a plan,” despite a push by Walker to raise the profile of county economic development efforts, Supervisor Theo Lipscomb said.

The article goes on to detail the failures and how tens of millions of dollars are at risk of being lost due to Walker’s inability to lead. The article ends with one of Walker’s interim department heads making excuses which the County Board was not buying:

Supervisor Lynne De Bruin said it was disconcerting that Walker had not acted more aggressively in marketing the programs. Jack Takerian, the county’s interim public works director, said that task would be a priority for an as-yet unhired county economic development director. The county can’t advertise the position until it’s approved by the County Board, likely later this week, he said.

De Bruin said Walker should name someone to promote the financing programs on a temporary basis until the development director is hired.

Walker fired back this morning. JSOnline dutifully reported on it, but greatly cleaned it up:

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker on Tuesday defended his efforts to market new federal financing programs to developers.

Walker was responding to criticism from supervisors, who faulted Walker for a sluggish effort at promoting the low-cost bonding programs — Recovery Zone Facility Bonds and Midwestern Disaster Relief Bonds.

Walker said supervisors stripped a portion of his plan to create a separate county economic development office from the 2010 budget; noted Supervisor Toni Clark had failed to advance a proposed job description for a new economic development director; and touted his efforts to market the bonds with developers.

“Anyone who knows anything about development, however, understands how difficult it is (even with some help) to put together a new project in this economy,” Walker said in a prepared statement.

There’s a few things about this. One, as I noted above, JSOnline cleaned up Walker’s original statements. Yes, there were two. The first one, which I received via email through the eNotification program, read:

My recommended 2010 Budget included creation of an Executive Office of Business Development to partner with existing employers and new businesses to foster economic development and job growth. In this plan, Milwaukee County Works, I specifically asked that the county board designate the entire County as a recovery development zone to seek the new low interest rate bonds. The county board summarily removed this provision from the budget, keeping only an Economic Development director position.

As required in the adopted budget, a job description for this position was given to the chair of the Economic and Community Development Committee well in advance of the committee meeting. The chair failed to bring it up so that the county could fill the position. Then they blame us. Classic.

We have been working with developers and local financial institutions to promote programs such as the Recovery Zone Facility Bonds and Midwestern Disaster Relief Bonds. Anyone who knows anything about development, however, understands how difficult it is (even with some help) to put together a new project in this economy. Regardless, we are still working hard to promote progress in our county.

If you have any ideas, please contact Tim Russell in our office at 414-278-4211.

Scott Walker
Milwaukee County Executive

Walker, or more likely one of his 20 staffers, noticed that Walker was less than accurate in this petulant tantrum, and cleaned it up, sending out a revised edition with the first paragraph corrected:

My recommended 2010 Budget included creation of an Executive Office of Business Development to partner with existing employers and new businesses to foster economic development and job growth. The county board summarily removed the provisions related to the Office of Business Development from the budget, keeping only an Economic Development director position. Prior to taking this action, the county board did pass a resolution designating the entire county as a development zone, so all areas qualify for these Recovery Zone Bonds.

As you can see, it is still as petulant and still tries to shift the blame around, but at least it’s not as blatantly false.

The second problem is with his last statement, complaining that it is too hard to boost economic development in these difficult economic times. However, it doesn’t seem to be nearly as difficult for the City of Milwaukee, who has had a number of recent successes, including the clean up at the Tower Automotive site and other buildings proposed to go up around the city. Heck, Walker even proposed dumping the work of getting the Park East Corridor developed on the city, since he knew he wasn’t up to the challenge.

But what Walker and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel fails to tell the people is that these problems started a long time ago. Anna Landmark at One Wisconsin Now does a good job of highlighting how Walker systematically cut the economic development structure until he all but eliminated it altogether:

When Walker was elected exec he had two divisions under his supervision that managed economic development programs in the county — the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) Economic & Community Development division (a merger of Economic Development and Housing & Community Development), and directly in the Executive Office was the Office of Community Business Development Partners (initially called Disadvantaged Business Development).

In his 2006 budget Walker moved the Office of Community Business Development Partners out of his office to the County Board after several years of reducing funding (in 2002 the program was funded at $680,454 and by 2005 Walker recommended funding of just $494,688).

After four years of recommending flat funding, Walker reduced funding for the DAS Economic & Community Dvlp department by $3 million (2007 budget), and then followed that up in his 2008 budget by stripping the program down to just real estate management and federal block grant distribution.

In his 2009 budget, introduced right in the midst of the 2008 financial collapse, the division was completely eliminated.

Walker reduced what had been $18-19 million each year in county spending on economic development (2002-2006), to just over $1 million in his proposed 2010 budget.

One thing that Ms. Landmark did not mention in her piece was the fact that when Milwaukee County did have an economic development division, Walker filled it with his campaign staffers, who proved to be far from fit for the job:

Walker’s last two choices to lead the county economic development office, Bob Dennik and Tim Russell, came from his campaign and lacked depth in the development business, Clark said. Dennik left the post this week to become an executive with a Pewaukee construction company. Russell is now Walker’s community relations director.

“Walker chooses folks who don’t have (the necessary) experience,” she said.

Dennik came under repeated fire from the board the last two years over disappointing land sales results that put the county budget in a jam. He didn’t return several phone calls seeking comment.

Only about $226,000 of the $7.2 million in budgeted land sales revenue for this year has materialized, contributing to a projected multimillion-dollar, year-end deficit. The land-sales budgets have been off $1 million or more in four of the last seven years, county figures show.

Yes, that’s the same Tim Russell who Walker now wants us to call with ideas on how to do his job, since he apparently doesn’t have any.

In other words, Walker was unable to be bothered to find qualified people and chose to use the program to pay back some political debts. He also demonstrated the fact that one simply cannot cut one’s back to good economic health. If anything, he has single-handedly made things much worse than they need to be.

Given Walker’s abject failure as a county executive, it is extremely bemusing to wonder how Walker, or anyone in their right mind, could thing he’d be anything but an absolute failure as governor.

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