Milwaukee city and county officials propose redevelopment ideas for 440th Airlift Wing property

A redevelopment plan for the 100-acre former home of the 440th Airlift Wing property near General Mitchell International Airport is scheduled to be complete in September.

Planners held their first public meeting on the redevelopment Tuesday night, and about 30 or 40 people showed up. Expectations are high among Milwaukee's city and county officials that whatever gets built there will have a ripple effect on the economies of the surrounding neighborhood, county and seven-county region.

But there's a trade-off. Building commercial or industrial developments on the property would have a greater impact on the immediate area around the airport, but the plan to build a runway could better spread the benefit across the entire region, said Peter W. Beitzel, vice president of business development for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

"It's our No. 1 economic development tool in the region, and obviously the whole Midwest Airlines-AirTran debate indicates that this is something that's important to the community," said Beitzel.

Milwaukee County's plan for General Mitchell has included building a parallel runway through the 440th property for a long time, and the closing of the Air Force Reserve base makes that even easier, said Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

The runway would cut through the center of the site but leave roughly half of the 440th property available for industrial or commercial redevelopment. But that project, depending on how swiftly airport traffic increases, could take six or seven years to begin, Walker said.

Since some residents around the site would have to move because of the runway project, Walker said county consultants are already working with the homeowners. He said the airlines that would pay to build the runway are comfortable with the plan.

"I think the one issue might've been what the immediate neighbors think of this," Walker said.

Runway a factor

The runway proposal will definitely factor into the planning for the site, said Craig Seymour, principal at RKG Associates Inc., a New Hampshire-based consultant assisting in the 440th planning. The Local Redevelopment Authority with two city and two county representatives is overseeing the planning for the 440th. In about a month, RKG will complete an evaluation of the property and its 200,000 square feet of building space and a review of the site's potential impact on the region's economy and local markets.

After that's complete, the redevelopment authority will begin looking into different alternatives for redeveloping the property. It's too early to take any ideas off the table, said Milwaukee City Engineer Jeff Polenske, who is chairman of the authority.

"We're all kind of working together to develop this reuse plan, and I imagine there will be a couple of different alternatives that we'll be looking at and evaluating," he said.

Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski, who represents the district around the airport, said he's open to considering the runway plan but that he's also interested in putting new businesses onto the site.

"I know the city's looked at should it be redeveloped, should it be open for business?" he said. "I'm willing to listen to the arguments. If you read about parallel runways-cities that have them do more business. "

Beitzel said the MMAC also wants to see the new runway built, since it would have a "huge" benefit to the seven-county region.

More input sought

Witkowski is calling around trying to get more people involved in the planning effort that will begin in full force next month. He's asked city agents to update his fellow aldermen during public meetings in July and to call groups like the MMAC and Milwaukee 7 for their input.

He's also calling neighboring cities to talk about encouraging development of more commercial buildings around the airport, in the hope of sparking a planning effort that would cross city lines.

"It's kind of a forgotten asset over here, and there is in my book a need to update the area around it, and I've gotten support from the suburban communities surrounding it," Witkowski said.

Walker applauded Witkowski's effort, and said he thinks Racine County should get involved too.

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