Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Rocky Marcoux’s Job in Jeopardy

Council majority votes no, but decision will get reconsidered. His chances look slim.

By - Jul 6th, 2016 12:17 pm
Rocky Marcoux. Photo by Laura Thompson

Rocky Marcoux. Photo by Laura Thompson

In a surprising development, Rocky Marcoux‘s job as the Commissioner of City Development is in serious jeopardy. Marcoux’s reappointment was scheduled for approval at the meeting of the Common Council and looked to be a done deal following a positive Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee vote (of 4-0 in favor of reappointment), but then things went sideways for the commissioner.

A surprise negative vote and lengthy debate on the council floor will result in Marcoux starting the whole process over at committee.

Marcoux has been with the city almost his entire career. He started at the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee in 1986 and worked there for 18 years, rising to the top post. He became the Commissioner of City Development in 2004 under Mayor Tom Barrett.

As I reported on June 28th, Marcoux delivered a lengthy speech highlighting his accomplishments in the past 12 years that touched on every district in the city. Following that speech, the committee voted to recommend reappointment of Marcoux for four more years, with a diverse group of four council members voting in favor and alderwoman Milele Coggs abstaining in anticipation of a one-on-one meeting with Marcoux.

What happened between the committee and council floor vote is unclear at this point. Whatever happened certainly wasn’t good for Marcoux. On the council floor, Marcoux had the support of six members: Cavalier Johnson, Nik Kovac, Jim Bohl, Terry Witkowski, Michael Murphy and Russell Stamper II. Voting against Marcoux’s reappointment were Tony Zielinski, Ashanti Hamilton, Jose Perez, Chantia Lewis, Mark Borkowski, Khalif Rainey (voted for Marcoux in committee) and Robert Bauman. Members Coggs and Robert Donovan abstained.

The move was clearly a surprise to many as it happened, with Bohl quickly turning on his light to speak and moving to change his vote to no. Bohl’s change to the winning side allowed him to move to reconsider, and more importantly, to advocate for sending the appointment back to committee. During a lengthy floor-debate that involved repeated questions for City Clerk Jim Owczarski on the rules, Bohl repeatedly implored his fellow council members to send the item back to committee. Bohl concluded his remarks by stating “if you don’t have a game plan in place, I think it would be foolish to literally just pull the plug here today. Again, I think we should weigh our options.”

Ald. Zielinski led the opposition to Marcoux on the council floor, but at times his comments seemed more an attack on Mayor Barrett. “This has nothing to do with him as a person. This has everything to do with the future of Milwaukee. In the last 12 years that he has been commissioner of city development we have fell far short of the expectations for the city of Milwaukee.” Zielinski went on to lament the loss of a lithium ion battery plant, that he believes was poised to come to the city until it was “mishandled” by the commissioner. In a follow-up floor speech, Zielinski went on to lament the high black unemployment rate and a number of other factors as signs of Marcoux’s failings.

During their floor speeches, a number of council member including Murphy and Bohl, seemed to be talking about Rocky as if he was already a dead duck. Murphy said it would be unfortunate for Marcoux’s long career of public service to end like this, and Bohl discussed the need for a national search if anything is to be done.

Following the floor debate, Marcoux’s reappointment was granted reconsideration on a 10-to-five vote and then unanimously sent back to committee.

Marcoux, who one high-ranking county official described to me as “an expert politician,” will certainly be making the rounds to council offices again to make his case. He’ll have to contend with the opposition of many that he hasn’t overseen enough development outside of Downtown. The commissioner has been here before though, having had his reappointment sent back to committee in 2012.

Do the council members voting against Marcoux, including Rainey who flipped his vote, really want Marcoux gone or are they driving a hard bargain? We’ll find out soon.

Marcoux was the only one of the mayor’s appointees not to be affirmed by the council.

Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly suggested Ald. Perez is a member of the ZND committee and changed his vote when the full council voted. Perez doesn’t serve on that committee and didn’t change his vote.

Photos of Rocky Marcoux

23 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Rocky Marcoux’s Job in Jeopardy”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    Is the Commissioner of City Development the right person to punish for the black male unemployment rate?

  2. Bill Marsh says:

    This speaks more to the incompetence of members of the city council and the weakness of Mayor Barrett, than to Rocky Marcoux. Milwaukee is lucky that the trend toward urban living occurred in the last 25 years. If that had not happened, Milwaukee’s problems would likely be insurmountable. But don’t put it past the governing entities of Milwaukee, they can still screw things up.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    Doesn’t it involve more than luck though? People wouldn’t just move to downtown Milwaukee for kicks and to follow a trend right? They need more reasons than that to want to live somewhere? Some people just can’t bring themselves to say anything nice about Milwaukee.

  4. M says:

    Having lived elsewhere I often was a cheerleader about Milwaukee then and still am. However, putting on blinders and spouting happy talk don’t solve problems.

    One Milwaukee historian has said that the city WAS LUCKY to have been able to develop housing along the river after manufacturing went bust. Of course, it took some good planning, such as the Riverwalk and willing investors and people open to moving there. And just having significant parkland, even if much of it’s neglected, has reportedly helped the city to repopulate.

    However, Milwaukee is very behind the times in some aspects of its development compared to other cities, especially regarding its public realm, transit and making neighborhoods throughout the city appealing and livable. For example, here’s one concern about Milwaukee’s food deserts.

    I’m not so sure many common council members have solid ideas about revitalizing the city but I’ve not heard much from Mr. Marcoux and Mayor Barrett either, other than for Greater Downtown (and even lots of downtown repels people). I’ve heard more forward-thinking statements by developers as well as some architects. We need to to promote vitality beyond just lake-adjacent neighborhoods and are developers and corporations now just expecting huge subsidies as a matter of course. As Norquist has said, you should not have to pay people to build in the city.

    Kudos to city planners on all the bike lanes and some walkable streets and nicely developing neighborhoods. But we need to get innovative for how to keep that going citywide.

  5. Ryan N says:

    Hopefully it’s just a shot across the bow and he gets confirmed on reconsideration. Either way it’s a shot at Barrett from Donovan, Borkowski and Zielinski and probably Hamilton and co joined in due to some agreement. Now just approve him and keep the progress going.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @M Norquist got a lot right (definitely not everything) but I can’t believe anyone (including him) thinks for example turning down the TIF for GE Medical was still a good move. And I’d like to point out many of the projects along the Riverwalk have some sort of city assistance to at least pay for the Riverwalk, so it takes planning but yes tools like TIF (and other city tools) play a very important role in actually accomplishing those plans. As far as Rocky and what the city is doing in the neighborhoods (other than Downtown, which btw is a neighborhood – people seem to forget that) he gave a multi-hour presentation just the other day on the numerous projects the city (from planning to money) is involved in the non-downtown neighborhoods. Watch the last ZND meeting. Is Rocky perfect? No. But this action by the council, in my view, has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with planning, or development for that matter.

  7. Jeremy says:

    Sorry Milwaukee. Some of the effect of having County Supervisors migrate to the City. Rainey will change his vote for any reason that benefits himself. Borkowski is his own brand of special. Additionally, you can rely on both of them to rehash old (bad) ideas from their time at the County. Rainey’s food desert program to name one off of the bat. The USDA more or less stated that providing better food options does nothing to improve purchasing habits ( Fresh Thyme thanks them for the New Market Tax Credit though!

  8. Bill Marsh says:

    Vincent- There are numerous things I like about Milwaukee. It is a primary reason why I live here and not in some place that is above 30 degrees in January. I love its diversity, the lakefront, the restaurants, the architecture, the parks, the neighborhoods, and the people. But it could be so much more.

    What I am saying is that if the trend toward urban living had not revived Milwaukee’s downtown, Milwaukee would be in a world of hurt. Milwaukee did not start the urban living trend, the trend started in larger cities and downtown Milwaukee had the building stock, land, and amenities to take advantage of it. People sure didn’t start moving downtown for its great schools, growing employment, and low taxes. Despite Milwaukee’s terrible public school system, anemic employment growth, high crime rate, high property taxes, and to cap it off- lousy governmental leadership, downtown Milwaukee has seen a boom.

    Look at how long MPS has been a disaster while Milwaukee politicians have at best done nothing, and at worst tried to obstruct school reform. How many times have Milwaukee politicians botched new employment opportunities or employment catalysts?, GE, Kohls, casino in an industrial valley, stadium in a parking lot, rebuilding I-794 through downtown and along the lakefront, using its harbor for a scrapyard and a salt pile, etc…

    And now the politicians, who are more of an impediment to progress than a help, want to dump a guy that has successfully help manage the biggest downtown boom since the 20’s. Don’t be surprised if these hack politicians do the wrong thing.

  9. Vincent Hanna says:

    Bill you claim to like Milwaukee, enough to live in the city, but you sound awfully close to folks like Charlie Sykes when you talk about it. There’s an overwhelming and excessive focus on everything negative and blanket statements that are just not true (“MPS falls apart and no one does anything,” etc.). Of course there’s a lot of areas of improvement, but if you like the restaurants and neighborhoods and lakefront, people must be doing some things right.

  10. Paul says:

    Bill – let’s start with your ” stadium in a parking lot.” The Brewers insisted that it placed next to County Stadium. Ignoring the revenue from 12,000 parking spots would have been irresponsible. Have you ventured south of Miller Park Bill? Have you noticed the incredible growth on Miller Parkway? Putting Miller Park downtown would have insulted people who have tailgated for years at County Stadium. How many parking lots can you tailgate in downtown. Can you imagine 40,000 people parking downtown on a weekday afternoon. Have you been to the valley lately? Nearly every development acreage has been taken by maufacturing firms. Regarding rebuilding 794 I’m not sure where you are coming from. The entire thing should have been torn down. Are you suggesting that the 794 being built along the lakefront was a good idea? Really? Regarding Kohl’s the city did everything in its power to lure its headquarters to Milwaukee. BuySeasons? Last time I checked the company is laying off people and most of the workers received less than a living wage. In January of 2016 they cut 128 jobs. GE – GE is about to cut hundreds of jobs because of international loan issues that Ron Johnson has done nothing with. Harbor as a salt pile? Where should we put the salt ? In your backyard? All harbors have some element of looking undeveloped.

    I agree with your statement on Rocky Marcoux. He is a brilliant man. He is one of Milwaukee’s greatest cheerleaders. If you’ve ever heard him speak his energy is incredible. His enthusiasm for making Milwaukee better is unbridled. Rocky Marcoux is a very positive person who has worked tirelessly to make Milwaukee a better place. One only has to look at his plan for the entire City of Milwaukee to realize that we are headed in the right direction. He is a gem we must keep. Nobody know the politics of Milwaukee better than Rocky Marcoux. To let him go would be a slap in the face of prosperity in Milwaukee.

    Sounds like the council members voting against him have a vendetta against Barrett. This is not the way to vent your anger at losing the election. Don’t take it out of the citizens of Milwaukee who want to see all of Milwaukee prosper.

  11. Sam says:

    I wonder what Bob Bauman’s beef is?

  12. Bill Marsh says:

    Paul- The stadium did not cause Miller Parkway to become a retail nexus. And as to parking, apparently all the rest of the downtown/urban stadiums that have been constructed in the past 20 years just can’t work financially? My argument for a downtown stadium is that it would have provided synergies- especially at the time Miller Park was constructed. (Hey, I’m insulted as a taxpayer that it was placed where it is). With regards to the companies that could have come to Milwaukee and are now laying off some people- are you saying zero jobs is better than X jobs less some layoffs? With regards to I-794, I think we are in agreement (I may not have been clear on this), I-794 and the Hoan Bridge should have been torn down. This would have connected the Third Ward to downtown, opened up the lakefront south of the Milwaukee River, and provided a substantial number of prime buildable sites for new development. Where was Barrett and the city council on the rebuilding of I-794? As to harbors- you need to see the world. Industrial harbors near downtowns are being redeveloped for housing, office, high-tech, and entertainment. Why? Because they are more valuable as these new uses. How many jobs are located at the scrapyard, storage yard, and docks on the Milwaukee harbor and what is the assessed value of that land? It is a lot less than what it could be. Move the salt pile to the valley, or the 35th Street industrial cooridor, or anywhere else that land is less valuable and not overlooking precious water frontage.

    As to Vincent- Being more affronted by criticism of a failed status quo than by the damage the failed status quo produces, just shows how tough Milwaukee’s problems are to overcome. Maybe this is why Milwaukee’s substantial problems don’t get resolved, and why Milwaukee’s governmental leadership is so lacking.

  13. Vincent Hanna says:

    You are wrong Bill. Not only focusing on the negative doesn’t mean someone isn’t concerned. One could say another problem Milwaukee faces is constant naysaying and negativity.

  14. Virginia Small says:

    The idea that stadiums and arenas (and convention centers and casinos) “revive” downtowns is dubious, according to MIT urban planning and public policy professor Brent D. Ryan. He writes: “In some cases the construction of these megaprojects destroys city fabric and causes a lot of damage.”

    In his book “Design After Decline” he talks about “metastasizing megaprojects” and looks at arenas and convention centers in Philadelphia and Detroit. He mentions Milwaukee favorably regarding the casino’s location in the middle of an industrial district–where it can’t do any harm to the urban fabric.

    People like to imagine that all would have been better if Potawatomi or Miller Park had been sited downtown. Milwaukee probably dodged two bullets by having them in the valley. Westown is already full of megaprojects that are dead zones much of the time.

  15. Bill Marsh says:

    Virginia- I didn’t state that the stadium would revive downtown, but I believe it would have provided a good boost to the downtown area. Are you saying it would be better for stadiums to be built in outlying areas with less synergies created for the general community, typically disconnected from public transportation, and in some cases, increasing sprawl? That’s a good thing? I don’t think stadiums or arenas revive downtowns, but locating these people magnets in or near downtown areas is an overall plus for downtowns. So have all these other cities with downtown stadiums made a mistake and are worse off for their downtown stadiums?

    As to the casino being located in the valley instead of somewhere downtown- why wouldn’t Milwaukee want to have an entertainment venue and large hotel located right downtown? Also, are you suggesting megaprojects should be built outside of downtown areas? Or only things like casinos which may bring in lower class people? Sounds classist to me. I agree these megaprojects can create dead zones. But that is where proper placement and design of such projects is critical.

    Vincent- It would be great if you would refute my arguments instead of just complaining about them. Or do you consider the common council members that want to fire Marcoux to be out of line because they have negative comments regarding his years with the city?

  16. Vincent Hanna says:

    I made a comment about Marcoux. I said holding him responsible for the black male unemployment rate in the city and firing him over that seems incredibly misguided and stupid. Refute what arguments? That MPS is in need of reform? I don’t disagree with you. It’s not about refuting arguments. It’s about a belief that some people focus so obsessively on the negative things it makes them seem very short-sighted and anti-Milwaukee. Like Charlie Sykes and his ilk.

  17. Virginia Small says:

    I was speaking about two Milwaukee megaprojects (casino and stadium)–not all megaprojects in every city. However, downtowns and other neighborhoods do need much fine-grained development to thrive. Taking over massive areas for megaprojects limits what can happen in those areas. The challenge now in Westown is how to “heal” all the ruptures to traditional urban fabric created by all the megaprojects from the 1960s to recently. It won’t be easy, but with thoughtful planning and development it can be done. We are lucky to have been able to add new housing along the river, but much housing was razed to build all the megaprojects and countless parking structures. Westown needs people living there and supporting development and walkable streets to make it livable.

    As for casinos, I’ve been to Potawatomi several times as well as casinos in other cities. Casinos attract people of diverse “classes” but they are mostly designed to be closed-system monopolies. Once you’re in the door they don’t want you to leave. It’s the opposite of a district with a big range of things to do and places to go, including appealing public spaces. As casinos and other megaprojects grow, they need to take over more space. In a downtown that usually requires shredding traditional urban fabric.

    Miller Park continued a tradition of baseball in the valley. One could argue it’s centrally located for fans from four counties and beyond–and allows for tailgating picnics, a popular tradition. When I attend games, I usually have dinner at one of the pubs on Bluemound and take the shuttle, thus contributing to that neighborhood’s economy. Some people do the same with pubs downtown and elsewhere.

    Ideally, Milwaukee will eventually have good mass transit throughout the county, including to entertainment venues. Downtown is not short on entertainment of many types or hotels. It’s good news that it will soon get a movie theater to round out that landscape, especially since movies are relatively affordable and appeal to many demographics.

  18. Hugh W Swofford says:

    Could this have something to do with an evert like Marcoux opposing strongly the new cermak grocery store
    in Walkers Point that had to be strongly fought for against him. He wanted offices instead of a grocery store. We
    wanted, and got a grocery store.

  19. Hugh Swofford says:

    We had trouble getting our new Cermak grocery store because he wanted offices instead of a grocery
    store. it took a real knock down fight to get it .

  20. AG says:

    Hugh Swofford, that’s kind of what generally happens when something is proposed that is different than what a property is zoned or planned for. Looks like it ended up just fine in the end (unless you count the actual design…).

  21. Dave Reid says:

    @AG Right. And originally the project was really just a grocery store with a huge surface parking lot and no corner building (not very urban). In the end the city made it a much better (though not perfect) project than had originally been proposed. And in fact the city is helping financially to make it happen.

  22. Pete Mingle says:

    Rocky’s current problems are a result of his bellicose belligerence–and Tom Barrett’s over-reliance on him to be his less- than-visionary downtown huckster-in-chief. If they remove Rocky from power, the Council’s renegades will greatly weaken Milwaukee’s lame duck mayor.

    It’s clear that Nik Kovac’s current nod of approval of Rocky (as opposed to his opposition four years ago) was a fob to the mayor, who is thought to favor Kovac succeeding him in 2020. However, the unexpected rise of Ashanti Hamilton to Council President has totally befogged the “2020 vision” of that ascension scenario.

    Here’s a prime example of Rocky running roughshod: At a September 2014 meeting of the Lakefront Development Advisory Commission regarding the eventually blocked giveaway “sale” of O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual, Rocky and Teig Whaley-Smith (Chris Abele’s henchman on the commission) tried to high-jack the meeting from venerable and gracious Atty. Bill Lynch–who was chairing the hearing.

    The many vocal citizens opposed to the park’s sale apparently enraged Rocky. He stood up from his seat on the dais, grabbed a microphone and dismissively lectured park defenders (as if they were ungrateful school children) with the dubious assertion that he–ROCKY MARCOUX–had increased the number of parks in Milwaukee. No sentient citizen present that evening walked out O’Donnell Park’s Miller Room with a positive impression of Rocky.

    Ironically, Bully-Boy Rocky effectively bolstered the resolve of the O’Donnell Park defenders to successfully block the park sale in December 2014.

    Thank you Rocky!

    Pathetically, the “all hat, no cattle” Rocky was an obsequious shill during “negotiations” with the Bucks’ billionaire owners as he handed over to them a city-owned parking garage and control of North 4th Street for their boondoggle new arena and bar mall–math be damned!

    Unfortunately for Milwaukee, Rocky, the Commissioner of CITY Development, became almost exclusively the Doyen of Downtown. His growing number of detractors are no longer deterred by his junkyard-dog tactics. The coming generation already senses that a thriving city boasts more qualities besides cranes looming over downtown.

  23. The previous post has reminded me just how belligerent he tried to be as he told Walkers Point that our dream of a neighborhood food store (Cermak was not appropriate and it had to be offices. Well we just steeled our resolve and got our food store.
    Now apparently there will not be offices as there is now a mix of some residential floors over commercial space and NO OFFICES unless they rent the first floor plus a separate building for the grocery. Financing was a problem but it is on the way. it does not surprise me that his job is in danger if he treated other groups like he treated Walkers Point. We had to push back HARD.

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