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Commentary: Wiza releases lengthy statement on Bus. 51

Editor’s note: All of the following details have been reported, in-depth, on numerous occasions by Metro Wire staff since 2015.

By Mayor Mike Wiza

Why are we so angry, so mean to each other, so quick to take Facebook information as fact? Our community is facing a referendum petition that could have pretty harsh effects on our ability to move forward over the next few years. How did it come to this?

Well, here is one person’s perspective—we stopped listening to each other. We’ve thrown civil discussion out the window and dug our heels into whatever our position is, and it didn’t start with vaccines.

I’ll go back to the Stanley St. discussion, which was over two years’ worth of meetings. It started off on the wrong foot when there were “informational meetings” held without consent or knowledge of the City. Incorrect information was disseminated and things began to spiral. At the public meetings, people who lived there, people who lived nearby, and people who used the road spoke. At each of those meetings, a majority spoke in opposition (we kept count). Did the Council take notice? Not really. One even told a resident that she had a Ph.D. and knew more than they did. That refusal to understand the perspective of those residents left a bad taste in the mouth of everyone who voiced their concerns.

Initially, no one bid on the project. We sent it out again and the road restriping came in way over the estimated budget at $96,900.25. Being so far over budget, I thought Council would turn it down, but they didn’t. Staff immediately began to look at alternatives and fortunately, they found that we could buy our own equipment and restripe it ourselves for less than the bid that Council approved. It seemed some on Council were so focused on getting it done that cost-saving alternatives weren’t even entering their minds. Stanley St. was restriped and now we own the equipment which is ultimately saving us money on our other striping projects. I’m very grateful to the staff for finding a less expensive alternative.

I only mention Stanley St. because that is where I began to notice the standoffishness of everyone. The heels were dug in, lines were drawn, and a battle ensued. It should have never gotten to that point. Stanley St. is functional, but things that were predicted didn’t happen—at least not yet. There were no “blood-soaked streets” as one man foresaw. Garbage is still getting picked up, accidents have decreased, but speeds have not. No one has hit a bike backing out of their driveway and no huge economic boom has happened, either. What did we learn?

Fast forward to Business 51. We began public meetings, this time around, in late 2019. It made the news. We hired AECOM to design the project and handle public informational meetings in early 2020. AECOM did just that and got to work. A few alderpersons participated and helped guide the discussion. All of this information is available at StevensPoint.com/Business51.

For whatever reason, when people saw the Council item to approve the design to move to the 30% design phase in September 2021, it caught a few more eyes. Business owners and citizens showed up to voice concerns. They seemed to be unaware of the previous meetings, door hangers, and news articles about the project. I can understand that. We often don’t have time to pay close attention to what is going on outside our immediate field of influence.

We listened, but Council voted to move to 30% design nonetheless. After seeing a large number of citizens with concerns, I asked Director Beduhn to make direct contact with every single property and business owner on the south section of the project. We offered each an individual meeting with us and AECOM to listen to their concerns. Many took us up on that offer. Over the course of a few days, we met and listened. We made progress. Most concerns were about access and driveways. Some modifications were made to the plan to help address those concerns. We couldn’t find a solution to everyone’s issues but it seemed that many of them left content.

We had another regular Council meeting and even though it wasn’t an agenda item, about 40 people took time at the beginning of the meeting to restate concerns that remained. I knew there is room for compromise on this project, we just witnessed it in those one-on-one meetings. It isn’t, “this way or no way.” The citizens felt they weren’t given the courtesy of participation.

To top it off, President Meleesa Johnson and Alderman David Shorr introduced “Rules of Decorum” for attendees. That prohibited several things that attendees had done during the public comments period of the previous meeting. When a Code of Conduct for Council members was introduced at the same meeting it was quickly shot down. The perception was that Council wanted rules for the public, but not for themselves.

Because of that perceived lack of concern, at the December 20, 2021 meeting, Alderman Slowinski proposed that the Council choose to go to referendum and let everyone have a vote on this project. This also gave the opportunity to discuss the project, since it was on the agenda. Again, many people spoke and voiced concerns. They claimed to be the majority.

The Council again shot it down. Some even read from prepared statements. How does that look? We had dozens of people who came to plead with the Council and to show they listened, Council members responded by reading something that was written before anyone even got to the microphone? It got worse. Three or four alderpersons voted not to go to referendum and then basically said, “You can collect enough signatures yourself to do it.”

The video is out there, watch it yourself starting about two hours and 14 minutes into the meeting. This, to me, was almost like a dare. That is not the way our government should operate, but the vote was taken and the Council would not willingly go to referendum.

How do you think those people felt—the people who own property or businesses and had to take time to come and share their concerns about issues that are important to them? There didn’t even seem to be a willingness to try to find another solution.

We have usually tried hard to show that we are accepting of everyone. We say we are inclusive and we want people to participate. As a community, we welcome everyone, don’t we? We have taken strong stances against hate, bigotry, and bias. We’ve condemned bullying in any form. Did we forget what those words mean, or is it just wrong for some people?

What else was left for these folks to do? What do you do when you tried to talk, to reason, to plead, and even try name-calling and insults? Well, they were told, “Go get your signatures.” So they got together, hired a lawyer, got some words on paper, and did just that. What would you do?

There is some weird stuff floating around out there. I can’t even tell you where some of it started, but here’s what I can tell you:

1. Funding is a big deal. We can’t afford to do any design on our own. Four-lane, three-lane, bike lanes, or roundabouts. Plain and simple. The north section is in a TIF, so that helps. We need grants if we’re going to make it all happen. If we don’t get grants, even the three-lane design is going to raise taxes so high that even I would grab a torch and pitchfork! It just won’t happen without funding. While no design prevents us from applying for grants, doing certain things to improve the road will get you a better chance of getting awarded a grant. Does that mean we have to do everything? No, so there is room for compromise in that regard, but the chances of getting the grants may decline, too. We need to find a balance point and make a strong case. It can be done.

2. Trust the engineers? Well, that’s horse hockey (to quote Colonel Potter). When some didn’t like what our engineers said on Stanley Street, they found another engineer who agreed with them. Engineers are trained professions but just like lawyers, they can differ in opinions. Remember Post Road was designed and built by engineers. The whole Department of Transportation thinks that build is A-Ok! Engineers can design what they are asked to design.

3. It’s too dangerous the way it is? It is more dangerous than it needs to be, but not really any higher, on average, than national stats. But, we would be doing everyone a disservice if we didn’t try to make it safer.

4. This is led by the “far-right?” Why would anyone say that? Is that just an attempt to be more divisive? These are citizens, business owners, property owners. This isn’t political. This is their livelihood. Does that mean the road diet is a “far-left” proposal? Of course not, it is supposed to be about safety, isn’t it?

Now let’s get to this referendum petition. I can’t speak to how or why this group chose the words they did or the amount they did. As a mayor, I don’t like it. Just about every road project we do is over $1,000,000.

If passed, this would mean that basically, every year, our road budget would have to go to a public referendum. That’s not the end of the world. We typically approve that budget in October. Now we would have to wait until November. I also think people understand the conditions of our roads enough to realize we can’t just stop fixing and rebuilding them. I also understand that it makes it much harder for us to make decisions on those roads because now each will become a political battle. Who can rally enough voters to squash the road plan unless we fix “Road X” first? Leek put it best, that’s engineering by referendum and it is wrong.

We also have projects that come up, and they may need a new stretch of road to their new development. Well, if it’s over $1 million, that now would have to go to referendum. If you were a developer, would you think that is going to be a smooth process? We only have elections a few times each year. Do I tell a developer, “We’d love to have you build your new facility here. Stick some money into designing, and if you need a new road, I can let you know if that’s ok in November. Please just hold tight and don’t go looking anywhere else for now.”

There really isn’t an upside to it. I’m advised that the Council could legally overturn the referendum after two years, so I guess that could be a bright side.

I understand how the people behind this petition feel and how they got to this point, but it could have been avoided. I know there is room to compromise and get many of the concerns addressed. It’s about those driveways, but it’s about much more than that, too.

Should enough valid signatures be collected and certified, I will ask for a halt on any further design work until the referendum vote in April. It would be foolish to spend any more money on design if there is a public vote in a few months that could nix the project. This will delay the project if the referendum fails, but a few months is not critical.

The bottom line is this could have been avoided if we all just showed more respect, understanding, and a willingness to try to address concerns.

For these reasons and more, I’m proposing that we re-evaluate the design, including the proposed roundabout, and break it further into sections. The north third is likely being funded via TIF and time is a concern since the TID will close at a date certain. We’ll focus on that area first and how that stretch will evolve into traffic calming lane reductions in the residential section of Business 51, south through about Patch Street.

We need to slow the traffic down in that area and create a safer environment for non-motor vehicle users. We also have a little more time in that area and we’ll need it as we decide whether or not to make Main and Clark two-way streets.

Lastly, because in several years we may have some additional funding opportunities, we should look at what we can do to help alleviate some of the concerns regarding the south segment. This seems the primary area of concern and we need to make more of an effort to understand the needs of businesses in that segment. We’ll have more time to look at access points, raised medians, and intersection alignments to be least impactful on the property owners and businesses.

Let’s end the name-calling, politicizing, and divisiveness that is tearing our community apart. Let’s walk the talk about bias, hate, and bullying. Let’s try sitting down, being civil to each other, and coming up with solutions.

Please join me in encouraging your Council to support this proposal. This is a community project—likely the biggest in our lifetime—and we have an obligation to listen, understand, and act to make sure it meets the needs of the whole community for the next 50 years or more.