Dave Reid
Eyes on Milwaukee

Renner Wanted to Buy O’Donnell Garage

Walker emails show Renner was a donor who contacted the 2010 gubernatorial campaign about buying and redeveloping the O'Donnell Parking Garage.

By - Feb 24th, 2014 04:35 pm
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O'Donnell Park Structure shortly before the 2010 accident. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

O’Donnell Park Structure shortly before the 2010 accident. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

In June 2010 a massive decorative concrete panel fell off the O’Donnell Park Garage. The tragic disaster killed 15-year-old Jared Kellner and hurt two others, and also caused a huge problem for Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who wanted to avoid any blame and any disruption to his campaign for governor. In the midst of all this hubbub developer Peter Renner approached members of Walker’s team about the possibility of buying the structure, apparently at a Walker for Governor fundraiser. This revelation was found buried deep within the 27,000 emails that were recently released as part of the first John Doe investigation that netted six convictions of people connected to the Walker campaign.  

Walker looked vulnerable on the parking garage’s failure, since deferring maintenance of county facilities was nothing new under his tight-budgeted leadership, and the media and politicos were swarming all over the issue.  But, in the end it came out that the contractor, Advance Cast Stone., had failed to use the approved installation design, which according to the jury in the family’s lawsuit for wrongful death, was the most to blame. Bruce Vielmetti and Steve Schultze, of the Journal Sentinel, reported that, “The jury found the bulk of the blame — 88% — fell on Advance Cast Stone. Findorff was found to be 10% at fault and the county 2%.”

Page 151054 of walkerdocs2.pdf . Click Image to enlarge.

Page 151054 of walkerdocs2.pdf . Click Image to enlarge.

Meanwhile, emails show, Renner apparently approached Dan Morse, who was working as a fundraiser for Walker at the time, about the possibility of purchasing the structure.  Morse emailed Keith Gilkes, who was running Walker’s campaign at the time, who in turned emailed Kelly Rindfleisch, who was working for the Brett Davis campaign and was a Deputy Chief of Staff for Walker, regarding the contact. Renner wanted to “develop/buy” the parking structure, Gilkes wrote in an email, but he thought the property couldn’t be sold, because it was deeded to the county by the state “with a deed restriction that does not allow the land to be sold to a private entity.”

Rindfleish responded that, “one of things we will be looking at is selling the property and putting the funds in a trust for the parks to draw on,” but went on to stress that “It would be something that would go to RFP so him approaching scott would be extremely unadvisable so if this were to go forward it would be a clean process.” As she wrote earlier in her email,  “My advice is to say that all the options need to be considered and we are far from making any decision…”

Page 151057 of walkerdocs2.pdf. Click Image to enlarge.

Page 151057 of walkerdocs2.pdf

Whether any direct talks with Walker occurred and what Renner’s plans were for the garage are unknown at press time. Renner did not get back to a request for comment.

A potential private sector suitor for the property is still on the table. In December 2012, Sean Ryan of the Business Journal reported that Northwestern Mutual was in talks with Milwaukee County about the possible acquisition of the O’Donnell Park Structure. NML is looking to add additional parking to support its $450 million 32-story headquarters tower project that is underway in downtown Milwaukee.

22 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Renner Wanted to Buy O’Donnell Garage”

  1. AndySmith-Brookfield says:

    In other words, Walker and everyone associated with both the campaign and county staff DID EVERYTHING RIGHT, ABOVE BOARD, PROPERLY, ETHICALLY and in the PUBLIC INTEREST. So, just what IS the point of this article and its headline? Truly . . . what IS the point?

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @AndySmith The story is that a private person wanted to buy a public asset (which is what the headline says). Quite frankly when the government gets in the business of selling public assets the public deserves to know about it.

  3. Keith Prochnow says:

    Andy, it’s interesting. This is a news site. But moreover, the thing stalled. It stalled because Scott Walker didn’t care a bit about development. He let the Park East languish, without even a department head to move anything along. He let our parks languish, he let this stall.

    Don’t you have anything to concern yourself going on out in Brookfield? Maybe a new store opening up?

  4. Justin A says:

    @ Keith

    Do you ever think the lack of development in the Park East may be due to the ignorant County Board that goes against anything the County Executive wants to accomplish? (Ex: Patricia Jursik trying to kill the Couture)

    Don’t you have anything else to concern yourself with in Milwaukee? Maybe Milwaukee’s rampant crime rate or failing school system? You can’t blame every one of Milwaukee’s problems on Scott Walker and the suburbs. You people live in a fantasy world…

  5. Chris Byhre says:

    Dave, you are correct about the headline but you could not resist trying to place blame on Scott Walker. Keith, you might want to look at all of the ridiculous impediments to development that were put in place by Dems on the county board for the main reason the Park East languished. Chris Abele actually made removing these impediments (his words not mine) to development in the Park East as one of his main campaign promises. He also promised to look into selling Milwaukee County land, buildings and other assets to companies and entrepreneurs. Dave will write about that but I think right now he is working on a piece about crazy Graeme Zielinski working for the current county executive or maybe he is writing about recent studies showing Milwaukee, under Dem leadership, having the 3rd highest tax burden nationwide.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @Chris Blame? “Walker emails show Renner was a donor who contacted the 2010 gubernatorial campaign about buying and redeveloping the O’Donnell Parking Garage.” Is exactly what happened. A donor contacted a fundraiser to buy a public asset, that is a story the public deserves to know about. As far as the Park East the PERC (those ridiculous impediments) still exists today (heck even the Couture will be built following the PERC) and development is now finally happening in the Park East. Now I wouldn’t say it’s Walker’s fault 100% either and the board has been less than good on it is well. But his admin failed to even put up all the lots for sale and clearly did not work with the city the way Abele’s has on the Park East.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Chris And I certainly hope to be writing about Abele’s administration selling off county land, in particular Park East land as it has actually been selling and developing now.

  8. Jerad says:

    @Chris

    Honest question, could you point out where there’s blame placed directly on Walker? I see nothing but facts and quotes. Not sure where you’re coming from.

  9. Chris Byhre says:

    Dave you intimated that Walker’s policies regarding maintenance budgets left him possibly culpable for the garage panel collapse and that he was more concerned about his run for governor then with the tragedy at O’Donnell Park. You called the fact that a private individual had expressed interest in a county property a “revelation” and that it was ” buried deep” in the 27,000 pages of emails in the failed John Doe investigation, as if someone was trying to cover it up. It is your tone and slant that I take issue with. First of all, finding out that one person talked to some others in the administration about a county property is hardly a revelation. Revelation as defined by Merriam-Webster is “a usually secret or surprise fact that is made known”. You have no evidence of secret or clandestine meetings on this subject yet you chose a word that would offer this impression. Secondly, when you have 27,000 pages of emails, everything is going to be “buried deep” in them since that is a ton of paperwork. It is not as though this particular bit of information was intentionally buried awaiting your brilliant “revelation”.

  10. Dave Reid says:

    @Chris He clearly wanted to avoid any blame or impact to the campaign, but I pointed out that in the end he wasn’t to blame (well the county got 2% of the blame I guess). And as I’ve literally gone through thousands of pages, it was buried though you are correct pretty much all of the emails are buried (fair enough). And yes it is a revelation as someone who follows the development world pretty closely I had never gotten a clue about this. And again it was a donor reaching out to a fundraiser to buy a public property.

  11. Chris Byhre says:

    If you follow development so closely in Milwaukee then why are did you refer to the NML project as a 300 million dollar 30 story building in this story? Other people who also follow development in this town are accurately reporting that project as a 32 story, 450 million dollar project. Is the difference in scale of this project a revelation to you as well? I agree you did mention that the county did get only 2% of the blame and I will give you credit for that. Any chance of a report about the tax burden in Milwaukee or the Abele/Zielinksi partnership or should we leave that to a neutral party?

  12. Andy says:

    So the revelation is that a donor reached out to Walker through someone who had access to Walker about a transaction that couldn’t take place. That contact did indeed send the message to Walker’s people, and Walker’s people then informed donor that the transaction couldn’t happen like that and it would all have to be done through a public process, if at all.

    This all seems very clean and does point out that Walker’s people did the right thing (as we would expect our elected officials to do). But you have to admit, your color commentary on topics that revolve around Walker tend to be pretty heavy handed against him… I could easily edit your article to remove the discussions of blame on walker and it would have all the relevant information still in tact.

    Instead of reading an interesting tidbit about how a developer was interested in the site, I end up reading an article that makes me roll my eyes at yet another jab at Walker and his group.

  13. Dave Reid says:

    @Chris Thanks for the correction on the Couture.. Moving too quick there for sure.

  14. Dave Reid says:

    @Chris The tax burden thing, you never know… As far as Abele/G Zielinski I’ve got no sources on it.

  15. Dave Reid says:

    @Andy “through someone who had access to Walker” yes someone who was fundraising for Walker, not directly to a county staffer. Yeah that is indeed interesting. But yes then campaign staff and a county staffer indicated how to handle it that is definitely true (and in the story).

  16. Hereiam says:

    I’m not sure why so many are outraged about this story appearing here. This website is focused on development of an Urban Milwaukee, and at issue is the process for potentially developing one of the highest value plots of land in the city. It seems like a great topic.

    What is interesting to me is that the released emails have given us a bit of a window into the process of developing large proposals in Milwaukee (successful or not).

  17. Andy says:

    Walker, his administration, or his campaign staff can not control what other people do. All they can do is respond appropriately, which they did. Instead, the article reads as if something nefarious is going on.

    As a side note… I appreciate Renner’s developments. The breakwater is not pretty, but is a well developed project that sold quickly and added a lot to connect downtown with the lower east side. Likewise, his developments along the river are very functionally designed, but helped pave the way for bringing residents back downtown.

    That being said, I can’t imagine one of his projects in such a prominent location. Unless he completed changed his M.O. and built something with style… I’d be very concerned.

  18. Pete. says:

    @Andy The article does not read “as if something nefarious is going on.” You are just reading it that way because that’s what you expected. This is actually a pretty straight-forward article.

  19. Andy says:

    Hmmmm… maybe.

  20. Tom D says:

    Is the O’Donnell Garage situated on landfill (east of the “natural” Lake Michigan shoreline)? If so can it be transferred to any private party?

    The O’Donnell is east of the Downtown Transit Center (site of the proposed “Couture”), so its status seems even iffier than the Couture’s.

  21. Dave Reid says:

    @Tom I believe it is essentially in the same scenario as The Couture.

  22. geezus says:

    Politicans are like queen bees, staffers like worker bees who meet her every need. If she is threatened, they swarm to protect her. They have nothing on Walker. If anyone thinks he or she will find a needle in the haystack that the recent graduate JDs did not find, please read each of the 27,000 e-mails and report back in six months.

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