Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Business Leader Blasts Council on Strauss Deal

Hamilton and council members are to blame for losing hundreds of jobs, Sheehy says.

By - Oct 28th, 2019 02:47 pm
Tim Sheehy speaking to the media in 2015. Photo by Michael Horne.

Tim Sheehy speaking to the media in 2015. Photo by Michael Horne.

Longtime Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy says the business community worked with Mayor Tom Barrett to bring good paying jobs to the city, only to see the Common Council and its president Ashanti Hamilton do nothing to defend the deal. As a result, Strauss Brands withdrew its proposal to move from suburban Franklin and build a $60 million meat processing plant in the long-depressed Century City area, and create up to 500 jobs in return a $4.5 million city subsidy.

“The business community is baffled as to why a company that has been doing business here since 1937, with 160 city residents as employees, is told in not so many words to take your jobs and shove it,” Sheehy tells Urban Milwaukee. “This is a momentum killer for Century City.” What business, he noted, “wants to follow this outcome?” 

“After being appropriately pursued by the mayor to be more aggressive in marketing Century City, we responded,” Sheehy says. “And the Common Council pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.” 

The plan was expected to sail through the Common Council with overwhelming approval, yet after a group of animal rights opponents began protesting the council began to waver. Their claims were picked up and amplified by Michelle Bryant, chief of staff for State. Sen. Lena Taylor and a host of a talk show on radio station WNOV, who devoted several days of her show to the issue. As a result, Ald. Khalif Rainey, in whose district the plant was to be located, received many negative phone calls and emails from constituents regarding the deal, and announced he could not support the deal. 

The fact that the alderman representing the district now opposed the deal was seen as its death knell, so Strauss Brands pulled out. “We honor and respect the opinions of the community and don’t want to make our home in a place where our presence would not be seen as a benefit,” said Randy Strauss, the firm’s president and CEO, as Urban Milwaukee reported.

Sheehy, however, contends that Hamilton and council members failed to provide leadership where it was needed. 

“No one contradicted Rainey’s statement that the Strauss investment was not wanted, including President Hamilton whose district is a geographic neighbor to Century City,” Sheehy noted. “No council member offered a caution, or a ‘let’s not rush to judgement’ statement. No one said ‘hey, I’ve got a number of constituents who make up the 160 city residents now working at the facility in Franklin.’ So absent any comment or outreach, this stood as the council position. This was a missed opportunity that the council owns.”

Barrett tells Urban Milwaukee that the MMAC was a “valuable partner” on the Strauss deal, which was the culmination of many meetings he’s had with business leaders with both the MMAC and Milwaukee 7, both of which promote business in the Greater Milwaukee region. 

“I’ve gone to many meetings where employers located in Waukesha or other suburban areas lament that they can’t get employees and always ask how we can get transportation of workers to these jobs,” Barrett says. “And I kept pushing that we need to put the businesses closer to where the jobs are. And frankly, they responded, and I’m glad they did.”

The response was the Strauss deal, which seemed a perfect fit. These were good paying, blue collar union jobs which did not require a college degree, the kind the city was dying for, after decades of lost manufacturing in Milwaukee. And it was a way to get more development in Century City and build on that success. “It was our hope that Strauss Brands’ move to Milwaukee’s Century City neighborhood would have created jobs, provided an economic boost, and inspired other businesses to follow suit,” Strauss told the media in announcing it would kill the deal.

Sheehy says Strauss did its best to make the deal happen. “They opened their business for review, and believed they were both doing something good, beyond their bottom line, and it was good for their business.” 

But he notes that in response to a “false narrative” from opponents about bad smells, rodents and and other alleged problems caused by meat processing plants, “not one council member took up the opportunity to visit” the Strauss plant in Franklin “and get a clear eyed view of what a processing operation looks like.”

Barrett notes there have never been complaints about the Strauss plant in Franklin. At city hearings Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux noted that “The company leads the industry in humane treatment of animals… I’ve been to the Franklin facility, there is no smell in the air… That’s with the equipment that was older than what will be installed here. This will be state-of-the-art.”

DCD project manager Benji Timm noted that Strauss planned to house the animals on-site for only a few hours before processing in an indoor facility and would climate control the entire plant. A basement would be used to load trucks with hides, blood, manure and other waste.

As downtown alderman Robert Bauman declared, “This may be the cleanest slaughterhouse that will ever exist in the United States.” 

In response to Sheehy’s criticism of him Hamilton said this: “If the Strauss company is sincerely interested in bringing this facility to Century City then I would like to welcome them back to the table. It is imperative that they work with local elected officials to put this proposal before the community. We must have the community’s concerns addressed to see if this is an appropriate use at this location before we get this deal done. Any other discussion is childish and reeks of political scapegoating.”

But given the complete lack of support expressed by council members for the deal, the company’s return seems unlikely. Strauss was “blindsided” by the sudden flip-flop on the deal, Sheehy notes, “and no business wants to invite controversy.” 

The deal’s failure is a “tragic” outcome, he says, and “only serves to make it harder to sell Milwaukee.”

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6 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Business Leader Blasts Council on Strauss Deal”

  1. brthompson says:

    The role of WNOV in drumming up opposition to this proposal seems to hark back to right wing talk radio in creating opposition to the train to Madison.

  2. 45 years in the City says:

    Speaking the Madison train, Mr. Sheehey and MMAC didn’t exhibit much leadership when Scott Walker effectively killed Talgo’s larger plans at Century City. True, Talgo still has a presence at Century City, but it’s a fraction of what they were committed to before the train project’s cancellation.

  3. Jeffjay60 says:

    There is little doubt that the city council fumbled the ball at the goal line. Taking cover from an organized campaign to sabotage this effort to bring jobs and economic activity to an abandoned manufacturing area not only deprives this neighborhood of badly need jobs but worse yet it confirms the suspiciouns of Madison politicians and out-state residents about the inability of this city to run itself.

  4. lccfccoop2 says:

    Hamilton is the one being childish – and he’s smoking something if he thinks Strauss is coming back after the shennagins of the past weeks. I’ve lived here in the Menominee Valley 42 years. The loss of these jobs is a real shame.

  5. Alan Bartelme says:

    The Talgo plant sounds very similar to me, but swap out the city council for the MMAC and business community. Sheehey & company was silent 9 years ago and Talgo mostly pulled out. I haven’t heard him explaining his position on that topic.

    Did Marcoux and Barrett keep the council members in the loop as this was developing? They seem to be sticking to the story that they weren’t consulted – if that’s the case, then the mayor should have seen this coming.

  6. sbaldwin001 says:

    Job seeking members of our community should wonder about their representative’s handling of this. We are losing the confidence of business leaders.

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