Culinary no-no began on Father’s Day 2007, a beautiful summer day, when I wrote about grilling brats. And eating brats. And topping those brats. I was inspired by my wife, Jennifer who, in my admittedly unscientific opinion, ruins brats by squirting ketchup on them. Other dining taboos quickly came to mind. The original idea was to take this concept only a few months, till the end of summer and then pull the plug. Then the unexpected happened. People started reading Culinary no-no. Lots of folks. So we keep doing the no-no.
This week, food politics.
Where I live, Franklin is blessed to have some impressive corporations located here.
Northwestern Mutual Life.
Thank goodness we’ve got ’em because for decades, Franklin has earned the dubious distinction of having a terrible business climate thanks to beyond difficult regulations and stipulations developers hate. Everyone recognizes these ridiculous obstacles except city officials who are in denial.
Let’s focus on Strauss Brands. The meat packer was founded in 1937 and has been operating out of Franklin for more than 50 years. Strauss was looking to expand in 2019 and Franklin came close to losing the successful company.
Strauss wooed by the city of Milwaukee
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that in May of 2019 Strauss announced it would have a new facility near West Ryan and West Loomis roads in Franklin.
Then in August it was reported Strauss would spend $58 million to develop a 175,000-square-foot plant near that intersection.
Those plans changed quickly.
One could understand the decision of Strauss Brands. The company had outgrown their Franklin facility. Milwaukee would sell 20 acres to Strauss for a paltry sum of $1. Milwaukee would also kick in $4.5 million in financing. A new federal program initiated by the Trump administration called Opportunity Zones offers tax breaks for investments in low-income neighborhoods like the one that includes Century City. The Franklin site is not in an Opportunity Zone.
On August 8, 2019, about three weeks before the news broke about Strauss expanding in Milwaukee, the private equity firm Insight Equity announced the acquisition of Strauss Brands, a leading producer of ethically raised specialty meats including American grass-fed and organic beef, as well as humanely raised veal and lamb.
“Due to the growth of our grass-fed and organic beef offerings, in addition to our core veal and lamb business, we have simply outgrown our current production facility,” said Randy Strauss, chief executive officer and grandson of company founder Milton Strauss.
The following is critical.
Strauss continued, “The investment by Insight Equity will provide the capital we need to develop a new state-of-the-art processing facility in Franklin, Wisconsin, which has been our home for over 50 years. We are grateful to the leaders of the City of Franklin for their support of this transformative project. Our location provides us with access to a stable base of exceptional employees and is ideally located to provide reliable delivery solutions to our customers via our in-house long-haul perishable trucking division.”
So what happened between early August and early September causing Strauss to pull the rug out from under Franklin and dramatically change course?
Strauss Brands chief financial officer Jerry Bussen told the Milwaukee Business Journal that unlike the city of Milwaukee, Franklin had offered no financial incentives.
“At the end of the day, ‘free’ is hard to compete with,” said Franklin Mayor Steve Olson.
“Labor force is a factor,” Bussen said. “Many of our plant employees commute from the (central city) area now (to Franklin). For us it came down to availability of workforce and speed to building. It’s important with our growing business that we get the building erected soon.”
“Since 1937, we have proudly operated both in and around Milwaukee,” said Strauss, and “with the support of Mayor Barrett and Milwaukee economic development officials, we are excited to announce our return to the city of Milwaukee, home of our operational roots.”
As for Franklin, Mayor Olson said Strauss Brands filed for a site plan and special-use permit.
“We’re moving forward,” Olson told the Business Journal. “I know we have a deal. We have a signed agreement with Strauss. We’re going to honor our side of this agreement. We expect that they’ll honor it on theirs.”
Olson said the city was studying possible options to pursue. It was reported at the time Strauss could continue running the Franklin plant after the Milwaukee plant opens.
Bottom line: Strauss made a business decision. Milwaukee offered a much better deal.
OCTOBER 8, 2019
The Milwaukee Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee voted unanimously to approve a plan to relocate Strauss from Franklin to Milwaukee’s north side.
Under the plan Strauss would develop a $60 million facility at Century City Business Park. The move would bring 250 jobs to Century City with the potential of that number doubling. Groundbreaking was set to take place in November with a plant opening in the summer of 2021.
The committee also voted to support selling the 20-acre development site, including a possible additional 5 acres, for $1.
The stage was now set for the full Milwaukee Common Council to consider and vote on the plan on October 15.
“I expected it to be overwhelmingly approved,” said downtown Milwaukee alderman Robert Bauman. “At this point there is no doubt about this passing. There will be no further hearings. I will say a little prayer every time I pass the site as an act of contrition for all the killing that will be occurring.” He also stated that what Strauss preferred to call a “meat harvesting plant” was in essence a “slaughterhouse,” a term that stuck with the news media and Milwaukee residents.
FOLLOWING THE COMMITTEE VOTE…
The Strauss saga took another turn.
The proposal had been supported by the alderman for the area, Khalif Rainey, who called it “an achievement for the City” and “for the Opportunity Zones program that has encouraged companies to think of areas like this one in new ways.”
But quickly a group called “Slaughter-Free Milwaukee” flooded Common Council members with form letters in opposition.
“Slaughterhouses create many detrimental consequences and immediate impacts on neighborhoods, particularly disadvantaged ones,” the group said in a statement. “Pollution and stench arise, vulnerable workers are exposed to brutality which can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, violence increases in the surrounding areas and impacts property values.”
The group did not substantiate the claims. Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux countered that “The company leads the industry in humane treatment of animals…They do not source their products from feedlots. They are free range. They are grass fed. Their veal is cage free.”
As for bad smells, Marcoux said “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.”
OCTOBER 15, 2019
The Milwaukee Common Council delayed a vote on whether to allow Strauss Brands of Franklin to build a slaughterhouse at Century City. The council instead sent the issue back to committee so aldermen can gather more public input.
The audience was packed with people opposed to the development. About 30 opponents gathered outside the council chambers before the meeting even began. Some carried signs that read “Stop the Slaughter” and “Slaughterhouses Harm Communities.”
Wanda Terry who lives near the site of the proposed meat processing plant said she was shocked when she heard that a plant was coming to her neighborhood. Terry said she worked at a tannery on the East Side.
“I was totally sick. You can’t eat. Your stomach is shaking. It’s nasty, it’s dirty, it’s germy, it’s everything. I don’t know where they are going to put the blood. Have you ever seen a blood pond? Go to Mississippi and check out Tyson. It’s terrible,” Terry said.
LOCAL ALDERMAN FLIP-FLOPS
Once a supporter, Khalif Rainey bowed to public pressure.
“When the administration initially brought the Strauss meat processing plant proposal forward, I considered the prospect of bringing 250 jobs to Century City, with more to follow,” Rainey said. “However, in the 72-hour period since the Common Council considered the proposal I have received an overwhelming response from neighbors in opposition to the project,” and he was longer in favor of the plan.
The expansion plans were dead. The reaction was swift, and brutal.
Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce Tim Sheehy said, “There’s no way to spin this other than that this is a serious blow to the prospects of marketing Century City as a location for capital investment and job growth, That was a roughly 2-year courtship (to attract the company to Milwaukee) to meet the self-expressed needs of Strauss to find a new location. I mean, Alderman Rainey made a decision without ever visiting the company. And so, there were all sorts of accusations made about the company, how it processes meats and the conditions of employment and yet nobody (on the Common Council) even bothered to even go visit the company.”
MMAC senior vice president Steve Baas took to Twitter to express his disappointment in the failed project.
“The MKE Common Council running Strauss Brands out of town is an undeniable black eye for Milwaukee,” Baas tweeted. “Sends a horrible message to any business looking to locate in the city in general and Century City in particular.”
OCTOBER 21, 2019
“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. 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. We are no longer pursuing relocation to Century City,” Strauss President and CEO Randy Strauss said in a statement.
Ossie Kendrix, the president of Milwaukee’s African American Chamber of Commerce said “I’m disappointed. When I think about 125 city residents that find a way to travel to Franklin for work, every day, I can only imagine how much better life would be for them and more city residents that wouldn’t have to travel as far.”
STRAUSS BRANDS’ ENVIRONMENTAL RECORD
In November the Milwaukee Business Journal reported:
The company’s environmental record is nearly spotless.
The Milwaukee Business Journal checked with local, state and federal agencies that regulate air emissions and water quality and only one minor infraction registered in recent years for Strauss Brands’ plant in south suburban Franklin.
When asked about Strauss Brands’ environmental record in Franklin, (mayor) Olson said that in his years of involvement with Franklin economic development since 1990, he has not seen any problems.
“I’ve never heard of any ‘environmental’ issue with Strauss’s operations, which is why they’re a valued business here in the city,” Olson said.
Milwaukee Alderman Cavalier Johnson actually visited Strauss during the uproar, but only stood on the street outside the facility. The company was unaware of his visit.
He reportedly smelled no foul order, saw no rodents running around, and didn’t even see cattle brought into the plant, just trucks moving in and out.
Mayor Olson still wanted to see Strauss Brands resume plans to expand in Franklin.
“I’m hopeful that the Strauss decision will be made in the near future,” Olson said in mid-November, and even met with Strauss officials after the city of Milwaukee efforts fell apart.
Where do we stand now?
In February of this year Strauss CEO Randy Strauss said, “After careful consideration, Strauss Brands has decided to stay in Franklin, our home for more than 50 years,” Strauss said. “We appreciate the ongoing support and patience of Mayor (Steve) Olson, his team and the city of Franklin.”
The company said that instead it would expand in the Loomis Business Park near Ryan and West Loomis roads. Bear Development of Kenosha is leading that project, and sold the 30 acres to Strauss Brands last year. Bear Development said it intends to complete infrastructure allowing businesses there to start construction.
This past week an opposition group fronted by Franklin resident Marcelino Rivera III, a vegan restaurant owner, announced it planned a 90-minute protest against the Strauss project outside the home of Franklin Mayor Olson on Friday.
“The city of Franklin has an ordinance prohibiting protests in front of private residences, and that will be enforced,” Olson said. “I’ve received a lot of calls in support of this. Frankly, Strauss has been here almost 50 years with no complaints.”
The protest, moved to Lions Legend Park in Franklin after police blocked access to Olson’s subdivision, turned out to be a bust.
The night before the planned protest, Mayor Olson sent an e-mail to all members of the Franklin Council and every city of Franklin department head.
We’ve entered a new low in Franklin politics. I don’t recall in my long history in the city hearing about a protest happening in front of an elected officials home before. You may have heard that there’s one scheduled for my home tomorrow morning at 10:00am with promises for others. For me, they can do what they want, but disturbing my wife and my neighbors is disgusting. It does nothing to further their cause (stop the Strauss project) and, if they knew me at all, works just the opposite. I have great neighbors. A lot of them are working from home and they’ll be disrupted and unsettled if even a few come wandering through with signs and making noise. Chief Oliva is prepared. Assistant Chief Magno will be in charge and will enforce section 183-20 of the municipal code which prohibits picketing in residential areas. It doesn’t stop my wife from being upset.
The protests are supposedly being “fronted” by Marcellino Rivera III who resides in District 5 (lives with his girlfriend) and he’s become recently active. He is apparently being counselled by Bob Swendrowski, a resident of the 6th district who is well known in some circles in Franklin.
It’s important that you are aware of the facts and these are from MY PERSPECTIVE. As always, if you feel the need, do your own research and form your own opinions but… again, it’s a new low for the city and people always ask questions.
- Marcellino Rivera III has not inquired of the City or Strauss for any information. He is not and has not been an employee of Strauss
- He had a meeting scheduled w Ald. Barber (and me) for Monday afternoon to which he wanted to bring his attorney as a witness. He did not show up
- He originally wanted Bob Swendrowski to attend as a witness. I will not attend a meeting with Bob Swendrowski
- Rivera has published any number of unsubstantiated articles posted on the internet by all sorts of “authors” without any reference to the Strauss project (crime in a very small town in Idaho (I recall), a small packer flooding some guys basement in Iowa with blood), etc)
- He uses the World Socialist Website as his main source of information
- He has no information about the project
- He has no information about the company or operation
- He makes statements about TIF’s that are wholly incorrect
What is he protesting?
- The project is properly zoned.
- The company has been in the community for 48 years
- There have been no complaints from neighbors
- There are no odors or noise from the existing plant
- The employees are union employees
- They are paid per union contract and work under union contract and conditions
- The project will put them into a state of the art facility and premium working conditions
- The company isn’t asking for a nickel of TIF assistance
- The company isn’t asking for a nickel of tax assistance
- The company is guaranteeing assessed value
- The entire operation is INSIDE the building
- The construction cost will be north of $74,000,000 which will make it one of the biggest projects of 2020 and probably 2021 in Southeast Wisconsin
The city of Franklin will hold crucial meetings on this issue in October. Given Franklin’s historically hostile attitude toward economic development coupled with some aldermen and their consistent efforts to thwart Mayor Olson’s pro-growth agenda, Strauss’ plans to expand are not a slam dunk.
CULINARY NO-NO BONUSES