We are living in a time of shrinking public budgets, a slowing economy, and an increasingly fatigued electorate. Nationally, we are no longer shocked by unemployment rates at or above 9 percent. We hardly blink at the idea of deficits in the billions of dollars. Locally, we have watched friends, neighbors or family members lose jobs. We have seen factories and shops close up, sometimes leaving an empty shell for years at a time.
In Port Washington, we've noticed that our storefronts are either empty, or very transient as attempts at new businesses seem to fight an uphill battle. Some of the buildings are finally being renovated, but the renovated buildings have not, at least publicly, secured tenants. They appear set to add very pretty backdrops for the "for rent" signs that will surely follow the renovations. This city wants to thrive, but just hasn't figured out how to do so. We have a very active Main Street organization, but even that has not done the trick. Our downtown just can't seem to get over the hump to be the bustling center of activity that it should be. Worse, the city hasn't invested nearly as much effort in any other part of town recently.
As a resident, and particularly a resident of downtown, I frequently ask myself why this city is struggling. I have spent some time considering the city's posted policies, ordinances, and, of course, followed the numerous rumors that may or may not have truth to them. I'm not sure that I have the answer, but I certainly see some contributing factors and at least have an idea worth considering.
Chasing the Tourist Dream
To begin with, Port Washington has wasted years chasing tourist dollars. We have an asset that our neighbors do not have — we have a very accessible lakefront and an active marina. We have beaches that are walking distance from downtown, and we are one of the few communities along this side of the lake that are not hampered by the Lake Michigan bluffs for our lake access. That said, tourism is a natural thought for downtown Port Washington. We have the tools to attract people, and we know it.
We have done everything we can think of to emphasize our tools — adding festivals and activities in the downtown. These are wonderful choices for the city, and greatly enhance the quality of living here. But let's be honest, the lake's natural charm is a double-edged sword. Our summers are usually twenty degrees cooler than our neighbors' summers, and often mix with fog and the unpleasant smells of decaying algae and fish. The tourist season is, at best, a boost to the economy for three to four months of the year. We would be foolish to ignore tourism as a benefit to the city, but it is probably equally foolish to go all-in on something that equates to one-third of the year, at best. And all-in is precisely what we have done.
While we chase tourist dollars, our neighbors are chasing regional dollars. Grafton has revamped its entire image by fully committing itself to its freeway access. In the past ten or so years, Grafton has seen the addition of the region's first Costco, a Target super-center, a Water Street Brewery, two large hotels, a Colder's, a Home Depot, Dick's Sporting Goods, Best Buy, a hospital and a host of very recognizable stores. These businesses are surrounded by local small businesses, and all seem to be doing very well. Saukville has also looked to its freeway access as a benefit and added a Walmart super-center, a Pick N' Save, a theater, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Walgreen's, and a few other recognizable stores. Again, these are surrounded by other local small businesses, and all seem to be thriving. Both Grafton and Saukville have had their share of empty storefronts as well, but those hardships are balanced by successes in other areas of those villages.
Port Washington, with similar freeway access on its north end, in the same period, has added ... a Duluth Trading Company. Of course, we've seen a number of successful small businesses in that time, but the list of regional draws is pretty slim — whether we are discussing downtown or anywhere else in the city. Rumor has been linked to a number of regional businesses that were vying for the location where Duluth Trading has taken root: a Buffalo Wild Wings, a Water Street Brewery, or a Mine Shaft restaurant. All of these, according to rumor, pulled out when the city was uncooperative. The implied (or explicit) message from the city was clear, "we don't need another restaurant."
Assuming that there is truth to these rumors, which I understand is dangerous, the city's foresight needs to be called into question. What each of those three rumored businesses would have brought to Port Washington are the regional dollars that we presently ignore. Although local restaurants might find a new restaurant threatening, the reality is that more people would be coming to town. People who now drive to Slinger for the Mine Shaft may, on a Friday night, wait two hours for a table. Some of those people get frustrated with the wait and look for alternative options — I know, I've done this — patronizing several establishments that are within a block or two of the Mine Shaft.
Taking the Mine Shaft example, in Slinger, I am following a regional draw — I have only gone there to eat at a restaurant that has a regional reputation, but I am spending dollars in the local economy as an alternative. These regional draws provide people, new people, that local businesses can lure in and serve — even outside of normal tourist seasons. These are valuable, year-round dollars that Port presently ignores.
The city's apparent theme of selectivism was echoed even more clearly with the city's recent denial of DeVille's lounge at the location of the former Foxy's. There, the city was very open about its intervention, with officials stating that the city doesn't need another bar and that the city would prefer an establishment that serves food. Again, although Deville's may not have had the same draw as, say, the Mine Shaft, it had the potential to be a draw and pull people from regions outside of Port Washington to the downtown. Those people would be exposed to our other, established taverns and (assuming any were open at the time) the small businesses that might also be of interest.
Lack of a Defined City Plan
DeVille's liquor license was also denied for reasons that included an incompatibility with downtown revitalization planning. At least publicly, the city is on shaky ground with its planning. Accessing the city website, there is, in fact, a Downtown Revitalization Plan. Unfortunately, that "plan" is little more than a survey of what is downtown and a wealth of data about use patterns and survey results. It is actually a very useful read and I do encourage anyone with any plans of opening a business in Port Washington to check it out. What it doesn't include, however, is any sort of planning.
Most other cities' planning involves the same research and data that is included in the Downtown Revitalization Plan. But that information and data is usually included alongside of city intentions and goals, visions, and strategies. The other cities' plans are prioritized and may include such things as new signage, plantings, beautification, road improvements, projects, and zoning, and usually have a time span: five years projects and priorities, ten year projects and priorities, etc.
If Port Washington has such a plan, it isn't posted on the municipal website, nor otherwise available outside of city hall. Worse, Port's plans appear to be very restricted to downtown. In other words, the whole rest of the city is developing on a piecemeal basis, where the city knows what it will do only when presented with the opportunity to do it. The city is reacting to circumstances rather than controlling them.
What are the city's plans for the freeway area on the north corridor of Port Washington? We're not sure. How about development along the Hwy 32 corridor from the south? Again, there's really no answer there. When was the last significant new commercial development in Port Washington?
It should be alarming that one of the topics in this past mayoral race was what the city should do with some of the land it has under its administration – including the former VK Homes development on the south end of the city that has been stagnant for the last fifteen years or so. It should be more alarming that another topic was whether to remove and rebuild the water treatment plant because its location was so poorly chosen. Or that the city has both widened and narrowed Franklin and Wisconsin Streets over the course of the last generation. Or that the city installed decorative crosswalks downtown, only two to three years before tearing up the roads to narrow the streets. All point to one thing: Port Washington is not following any comprehensive plan at all.
Unaccountability in Power
The inconsistency in Port Washington is frustrating, no doubt. Its lack of vision and planning and its emphasis on misguided, and often unstated, goals leads to the appearance of complete arbitrariness. No one needs to be an economist to understand that arbitrariness and unpredictability is usually bad for growth and business success. But the most frustrating part is that our elections do not really play much of a part in changing things.
Typically in the democratic process, when officials are ineffective, unsatisfactory, or just plain wrong, the population under that official gets the chance to remove the official from office by electing someone else. If the mayor does a poor job, we can always replace him with another mayor. If you are unhappy with your alderman, you can elect his opponent at the next election cycle. Because of the elections, those officials are accountable to the public.
Where Port Washington runs into trouble is that our elected officials are not the only ones in charge - nor the ones that have the most authority. We have appointed officials that run the day-to-day operations of the city on a full-time basis. The appointed officials are in place in every city in the state, and typically make the job of part-time elected officials manageable. But Port Washington runs into trouble by giving its chief appointed official, as a prime example, a lot of responsibility with virtually no accountability.
Under city ordinance, the day-to-day affairs of the city are run by the city administrator. The city administrator is a full-time, salaried position, appointed by the majority of the members of the city council. He serves an indefinite term – effectively a lifetime appointment – and may only be terminated upon a majority vote of the council. His job description is to be the chief executive of the city, directing, coordinating, and expediting activities of all city departments, divisions, and offices. He is responsible for the policies and programs established by the council, serves on all boards, commissions, and committees of the city – except the police and fire commission. He is the supervisor for every department head and all city personnel, responsible for hiring, suspending, and dismissing all city employees – including recommendations on department heads.
In Port Washington, the city administrator is the financial advisor to the city, overseeing budgeting performance. He reviews and interprets the financial reports and expenditures, and makes recommendations to the council on financial programs and plans. He acts as a purchasing agent for the city, prepares the controller's report, keeps the official records of the city, and acts as office manager.
Reading through the description, most of us would assume that these are the mayor's duties. Realistically, our mayor runs the council meetings and serves as the face of the city. Although our part-time mayor does, with the part-time council, oversee the city administrator, the city administrator has a huge amount of power. He has every facet of the city under his oversight, subject only to the approval of the council. If the city administrator is unpopular with the population, tough luck – he can keep his job for as long as he wishes, provided he can keep at least half of the council from terminating him.
By comparison, other cities with a city administrator leave a substantial amount of power with the mayor, but allow each mayor to delegate specific authority to the city administrator. Still others simply employ a full-time mayor without delegating the authority very much at all (of note, a full-time mayor tends to make an average of $10,000 per year less than a city administrator in the state of Wisconsin). In both scenarios, the population has a much larger say in the affairs of the city. A less powerful city administrator may be equally insulated from accountability, but his authority is much more limited. In the alternative, those cities with a full-time mayor have full and direct accountability – if the mayor embarks on a series of failed, stagnant, or otherwise unsatisfactory policies, the people elect his opponent to change the direction of the city.
I've been in the area for most of my life, and Port Washington is a wonderful city to live in. We have the tools and resources to have a thriving tourist economy supplementing a vigorous regional economy. We haven't figured out how to put them together and have taken a path that has resulted in some pretty serious stagnation while our neighbors show success. With the right planning and focus, we could get there, but to do so requires a change in thinking and a change of direction.
Our biggest handicap as a city may be that the very structure of city government resists change — even for unsuccessful policies. We may be locked into our pattern of stagnation unless and until we can figure out a way to hold those in authority accountable. And to do so, we may need to fully examine where authority exists in the city. Only with those who run the show accountable for their decisions will we ever be able to reward successes and remove failures. To put that in place, perhaps it is time for this city to discuss replacing our use of a city administrator with the use of a full-time mayor.