Jeramey Jannene

Cavalier Johnson Is All In On Growing Milwaukee

Annual State of the City speech places growth plan front and center.

By - Mar 4th, 2024 03:36 pm
Mayor Cavalier Johnson delivers the 2024 State of the City address. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson delivers the 2024 State of the City address. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

“There are lots of reasons to be proud of the state of our city,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson in an upbeat State of the City speech Monday morning.

Johnson, speaking at a new industrial facility on the city’s western edge, delivered a 31-minute speech that touched on everything from efforts to improve public safety to economic development successes. He also delved into the upcoming Republican National Convention.

“There is a great story to tell about Milwaukee, and I am set to be our city’s most vocal promoter,” said the mayor.

Johnson was quick to plug his vision of growing Milwaukee to one million residents and proposed changes to the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning regulations. “We can reduce barriers to new development and, at the same time, make progress on our sustainability and affordability goals,” he said while standing in front of a “Growing Milwaukee” sign.

“I am a champion for growing Milwaukee, adding energy and activity to Milwaukee. I want more investment, more jobs, and more people – artists and entrepreneurs; intellectuals and athletes; I want investors, dreamers, and hardworking people who want to shape their future here,” said Johnson.

But he also swiftly moved to talk about more than urban planning. “There is more to growing our city than land use and housing plans,” said the mayor. “We must be sure we provide the municipal services Milwaukee will need.”

That includes, according to Johnson’s remarks, traffic calming, of which 45 construction projects are planned in 2024, new economic development projects like the $456 million Baird Center expansion and Fiserv’s new global headquarters, demolishing blighted properties, improving the public library system and a focus on public safety.

“I have no higher priority than making sure Milwaukee is as safe as possible,” said Johnson. The mayor, who came to office in late 2021 amid a record surge in homicides, touted more recent declines in crime. Johnson cited the third year of month-over-month reductions in FBI-tracked serious Part 1 crimes, including a 9% drop in 2023. Non-fatal shootings and car jackings are down 25% in 2024 versus the same time last year. “We are adding police officers and working with prosecutors and courts to make sure accountability is achieved.”

The mayor made it clear that his interest in hosting the Republican National Convention, and likely Donald Trump, is about money, not politics. “To be crystal clear, I neither endorse the GOP party, nor the leading candidate,” said Johnson, a Democrat. Johnson praised U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin for her work to get a federal security grant boosted from $50 million to $75 million, though the legislation must still pass through Congress.

Johnson also acknowledged the issues that have plagued the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM), which have been brought to light by a broad-based and very vocal campaign by Common Ground of  Southeastern Wisconsin. But he gave a complete endorsement of HACM executive secretary Willie Hines, Jr.

“I am keeping a close eye on the agency, and staying in touch with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as the Housing Authority addresses the problems. They are headed in the right direction, and I have confidence in the agency’s leadership,” said Johnson. In a media scrum after the speech, he cited the HUD reports as his reason for confidence in Hines. Tenants and Common Ground have called for Hines’s removal.

Johnson also added clarity to his “Raze and Revive” effort that seeks to double the number of vacant home demolitions and saw him, at a press conference last month, leading a countdown until a backhoe started smashing a house.

“I have directed city departments to prioritize the ‘revive’ portion of Raze and Revive. I want more than vacant lots. I want neighborhood assets instead,” said Johnson on Monday.

One applause line from the speech would strike anyone from outside the city as strange. “The former Northridge Mall is now owned and controlled by the city of Milwaukee, “said Johnson. But for a property that has become the quintessential definition of blight for the past decade, the city actually having the authority to address the issue is a cause for applause.

The mayor also singled out the Milwaukee Water Works’ accelerating work to replace the remaining 66,000 lead service lines that connect buildings with the city’s water system. Johnson reiterated a 10-year timeline, half the previous estimate, to replace all of the lead laterals, but the actual federal regulations that would start the 10-year clock could be delayed and the likelihood that federal funds could run out before Milwaukee can complete the work worries some.

And even when the lead pipes are all gone, lead won’t be. City officials have long maintained that lead paint is a more significant source of lead poisoning than water. Johnson praised the Milwaukee Health Department’s expanded efforts, backed by a council-approved influx of federal funding, to expand its case management and lead paint abatement efforts.

During his remarks, Johnson also touted a multi-modal transportation vision for the city. He praised LED street lighting projects for making it easier for pedestrians to see and the continued work on last year’s pledge to build or have under development 50 miles of protected bike lanes by 2026, while stressing the need for Milwaukee County Transit System buses and The Hop streetcar system and FlexRide, a pooled ride service that connects city residents to jobs in suburban business parks.

The mayor also praised the subsidy agreement to keep the Milwaukee Brewers in Milwaukee and noted it doesn’t include any new city taxes. But the deal does have the Brewers receiving a large share of the administrative fee associated with the city’s new sales tax.

But Johnson remains happy with the sales tax agreement he negotiated.

“Now to be clear, Milwaukee is not suddenly flush with cash. We have tight budgets now and into the future. But what we have done is avoid the fiscal disaster that was looming over Milwaukee and City Hall,” said Johnson.

The event maintained its who’s-who status despite flipping what side of Milwaukee it was held on. The 2023 speech was held in June at the BMO Pavilion at Henry Maier Festival Park.

The 2024 speech was at Western Building Products‘ new 326,000-square-foot plant on N. 115th Street, just off W. Good Hope Rd. Backed by a tax incremental financing subsidy, the employee-owned company opened the plant in 2021. Johnson spoke from the distribution floor, flanked by semi-trailers from the millwork distributor.

City elected officials in attendance included Common Council President José G. Pérez, council members Lamont Westmoreland, Michael Murphy, Mark Chambers, Jr., Andrea Pratt, Russell W. Stamper, II, Larresa Taylor, Khalif Rainey and Milele A. Coggs, municipal judges Valarie Hill and Molly Gena, treasurer Spencer Coggs and comptroller Aycha Sawa. Murphy and Sawa, neither of whom is seeking reelection, received praise from Johnson, while alderman Mark Borkowski, a longtime administration critic, did not. Dozens of department heads and managers could be seen in the crowd of several hundred.

Also present were Supervisor Peter Burgelis, running for a council seat, and State Rep. Evan Goyke, running for city attorney. Goyke’s opponent, incumbent Tearman Spencer, was not there. Bill Christianson, running to replace Sawa, his current boss, as comptroller was also in attendance.

Other elected officials spotted in the massive room included County Executive David Crowley, County Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson, representatives Dora Drake, Kalan Haywood II and Supreme Moore Omokunde and circuit court judge Raphael Ramos. Council candidates Bruce Winter, who opposed the Western project, and 4th District challenger Rayhainio Boynes, could also be spotted in the crowd. County comptroller candidates Michael Harper and Liz Sumner, a county supervisor, were also in attendance.

Johnson himself is also on the ballot, but he handidly won the February primary with more than 85% of the vote. Still, campaign regulations kept his name off the event program.

Civic leaders seen in the crowd included Greater Milwaukee Committee CEO Joel Brennan, Bucks President Peter Feigin, GRAEF CEO John Kissinger, VISIT Milwaukee CEO Peggy Williams-Smith and the group’s VP Claire Koenig, Sen. Baldwin’s Wisconsin office leader Tiffany Henry, Governor Tony Evers’ Milwaukee office leader Kyle Ashley, attorney and harbor commissioner Craig Mastantuono, city plan commissioners Allyson Nemec and Ranell Washington, former redevelopment authority member Bill Schwartz, Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. CEO Sarah Pancheri and COO Mary Schanning, Milwaukee Public Library Foundation Executive Director Ryan Daniels, Equal Rights Commission chair Tony Snell, attorney Mark Thomsen, Emem Group CEO Michael Emem and VP Deshea Agee, Milwaukee School of Engineering marketing head Saj Thackenkary, Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin executive director Tracy Johnson, Mueller Communications leaders James Madlom and Lori Richards, public relations specialist Anne Zizzo, Kapur & Associates exec Jeff Stone, MobiliSE executive director Dave Steele and Menomonee Valley Partners head Corey Zetts

Johnson was introduced by Western Building Products President Aaron Buesing, area alderman Westmoreland and area resident and Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee board chair Frances Hardrick.

Johnson, as he did last year, walked off stage to “Simply The Best” by Tina Turner.


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Categories: Real Estate

One thought on “Cavalier Johnson Is All In On Growing Milwaukee”

  1. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    Questions on the growth of Milwaukee:

    1) Other than climate refuge, what will draw
    people to Milwaukee now and in the future?
    2) Who will come here and Where will they live?
    3) Where will they work? shop? learn?
    relax? recreate?
    4) How will they commute?

    Someday when Milwaukee is all ‘growed up’,
    The street car will Hop off the street onto its own elevated (rapid) right-of-way.
    We will also have benefited from not squandering too much industry-compatible land adjacent to rail lines on other projects.
    Good luck with that!

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