Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

DCD Leader Rocky Marcoux Will Retire

Marcoux has held position for 16 years, survived contentious reappointment battles.

By - May 27th, 2020 02:28 pm
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Rocky Marcoux. Photo by Laura Thompson

Rocky Marcoux. File photo by Laura Thompson

One of the highest-profile figures at City Hall is stepping down.

Department of City Development Commissioner RichardRocky” Marcoux is retiring after 16 years at the helm of the department and 34 years with the city.

He’s been involved with every major economic development and planning project since assuming the commissioner role in 2004, including expanding the riverwalk, developing the streetcar and dozens of city-supported real estate projects across the city. He’s also served as the city’s promoter-in-chief, delivering countless fast-paced, high-energy speeches championing the city.

“It’s a lot of time. It’s a lot of effort. It’s something I’ve enjoyed tremendously,” said Marcoux in an interview. “It’s certainly been an eye-opening and engaging experience and one I will always value.”

He’ll follow his wife Christine into retirement. She retired in December after decades at the federal Social Security Administration. The couple has three daughters.

“I really do want to spend more time and enjoy my wife and my family,” said Marcoux, who will turn 62 on Saturday. “It wasn’t COVID, it wasn’t a potential battle at the council or anything like that.”

Marcoux will have lasted 16 years, the longest tenure as DCD leader in city history, and a testament to not only his backing by Mayor Tom Barrett, but his understanding of politics. He survived contentious reappointment fights in 2012 and 2016.

Barrett told Urban Milwaukee that Marcoux didn’t say anything at first, but he had a feeling when he attended Christine’s retirement party. “I thought uh oh,” he said. Barrett and Marcoux have worked for the past few months to find a replacement.

“Rocky did a phenomenal job, he gave 100 percent in every neighborhood he was in,” said Barrett.

He grew up in Connecticut in a working-class, but politically active family, moving to Milwaukee to attend Marquette University. Marcoux graduated from MU in 1982 and started at the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee in 1986.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m extremely proud of the work I was part of at the Housing Authority,” he said. He started as a manager at the Hillside development on the northwest side of downtown and became head of development for HACM in 1992.

Marcoux credits Ann Wilson, then a resident of Hillside, as well as HACM co-workers Ricardo Diaz, Bobbi Marsells, Antonio Perez, Susan July and former DCD commissioner Michael Morgan as mentors.

His work at Hillside, then located in the shadow of the Park East Freeway, inspired his view on the city and equity. “That freeway really was a symbol of the racism that existed in the city,” said Marcoux. “It was great that the freeway came down.” He said executing the redevelopment of Hillside without displacing residents was the result of HACM responding to residents and something that guided future projects.

“The Townhomes at Carver Park is one of the things I am most proud of,” said Marcoux of the mixed-income redevelopment.

He was first appointed to head DCD in 2004, when Barrett was in his first year in office. The mayor was re-elected in April and will now need to reappoint all of his commissioners. Marcoux said he’s agreed to stay until a new appointee is confirmed.

Marcoux is leaving at a time when a lot of signature initiatives are left incomplete: the Century City business park, The Couture and streetcar and the redevelopment of the Park East corridor. “That’s always going to be the case,” he said. “As long as there is an urban center there is going to be that kind of work.”

In fact, one of the things Marcoux is most proud of, the redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley, was an unfinished project his office inherited.

Marcoux is also proud of the successor to the valley, Century City. He acknowledges some look at the project as a failure, but “I look at it quite differently. I remember five million square feet under one roof almost collapsing. I am very pleased we were able to move on it in a big way.” He is confident it will eventually be full.

He’s also proud of what’s happened in Downtown, starting with Northwestern Mutual‘s decision to build a new tower in late 2012. “If [CEO John Schlifske] had chosen to build outside the city I think we would have a much different Downtown right now.” Marcoux said the deal put in motion a series of suburbs-to-Downtown moves and other development projects.

He said three projects, each of which the city has provided financial support for, have changed the perception of the west side of Downtown. “People didn’t have confidence that you could develop on the west side of the river,” he said. He said Manpower moving Downtown in 2007, coupled with the redevelopment of former Pabst Brewery and the development of The Moderne apartment and condo tower changed the perception of Westown. It also set the stage for Fiserv Forum and the surrounding Deer District.

“There were a lot of open questions,” said Marcoux of sale of the Milwaukee Bucks to an east coast ownership group. But he said the ownership team has held to its promises and Herb Kohl deserves credit for insisting on the team staying in Milwaukee.

He credits Barrett for being the right person to bridge the gap between the city and suburbs and partner with other leaders to establish the Milwaukee 7 regional economic development partnership. “There was a lot of mistrust on both sides” when Barrett came into office, Marcoux noted. He credited Barrett, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce president Tim Sheehy and others for working to put aside differences and work together. “There’s been too much Milwaukee bashing going on.” He credits the partnership for landing Ingeteam, a Spanish wind turbine manufacturer, and leading the company to build a facility in the Menomonee Valley.

Marcoux is also proud of the work DCD has done with regard to The Hop and still wants it to be extended. “We need to get it moved to the north, and we need to do it now, and we need to get south as well,” he said. “If it only remains a downtown conveyance it will never have achieved its development potential and transportation potential.”

The outgoing commissioner is confident one project on the drawing boards will happen — The Couture — and will be bringing the streetcar with it. “I believe firmly in my heart that building is going to break ground this year.”

But there are a number of projects that failed for one reason or another. Strauss Brands, a meat processer that would have relocated to the Century City from Franklin, pulled the plug on the move in late 2019 after opposition emerged. “I still can’t reconcile that in my head.”

And “we didn’t get the Kohl’s headquarters which we tried very hard to do,” he said of a plan to relocate the company to Menomonee Falls. But the company’s proposed expansion hasn’t materialized as planned.

A deal for Boston Power to build a lithium battery plant in Milwaukee also didn’t happen. “It evaporated after [Alderman] Tony Zielinski went public with it,” said Marcoux. He said the publicity allowed Massachusetts to negotiate a better deal, but the company never got the federal stimulus grant it needed to move the project forward.

The city also didn’t land Amazon, neither its HQ2 plan or a distribution warehouse for Century City. “The company chose a site that’s closer to the freeway,” he said of the Oak Creek facility now under construction. He said it was a win for the region, but he thinks they would have benefitted from direct access to a ready and waiting workforce.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs to this job. No doubt about it.”

What skills and attributes will the next person need? Marcoux listed five: being a good listener, being ethical, being patient, being willing to persevere and having an understanding that they are acting on behalf of the larger citizenry. “All of our citizens are at different points economically,” he said. “There is a certain fairness there that needs to be righted.”

Will Marcoux give a farewell speech? “I might do a slide show and put it up on YouTube,” he said, laughing. “I won’t have any constraints on me.”

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