My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
After years of debate and rejected proposals, the city of West Bend approved a plan to build a new pedestrian bridge across the Milwaukee River between downtown and the Museum of Wisconsin Art. The plan includes demolishing an existing pedestrian bridge and the defunct “bridge to nowhere.” But at the last minute, a group has launched an effort to save the bridge to nowhere. Is it a bridge worth saving?
The history of the bridge to nowhere is a history of the evolution of West Bend’s downtown retail shopping. The enclosed, climate-controlled bridge was built in 1982 to connect West Bend’s historic downtown to the thriving, 50,000-square-foot West Bend Outlet Mall located just across the Milwaukee River. At the time, the outlet mall concept was novel and was an attraction for shoppers from far and wide.
As other outlet malls were built in places like Kenosha and Oshkosh, the demand for the West Bend Outlet Mall dried up and it was sold in 1994 to Fields Fine Furniture. That store eventually failed, leaving an abandoned husk that was eventually bought by the city and, eventually, torn down in 2007. The bridge to somewhere became the bridge to nowhere.
Since those dismal days for downtown, new life has been breathed into it, as it has become a destination for more eclectic shoppers and the arts. Part of that rebirth has been the construction of the new building for MOWA across the river. As part of the developer’s agreement for the museum, the city agreed to construct a new pedestrian bridge to connect the museum to the vibrant center of the city.
So after a lot of thought and debate, the city approved the plan to tear down the two existing bridges and build a new bridge. The bridge will connect the two parks and Main Street to MOWA to allow visitors to easily enjoy the entire area.
At the same time, another historic piece of downtown is anticipating new life. The downtown theater has been closed and in disrepair for years. In its last gasps, I took my kids to a showing of Pixar’s “Cars” in 2006 and loved the atmosphere of the classic theater experience, but there just was not enough demand to keep the doors open. A group of people is looking at the theater with a plan to revive it as part of a larger entertainment destination in the heart of downtown.
The problem with their plans is that they view the bridge to nowhere as a critical element to connect their project with the needed parking available across the river. To that end, they have launched a petition drive and are pressuring city leaders to save the bridge to nowhere so it can once again become a bridge to somewhere.
The problems with saving the bridge are the conjoined twins of time and money. The bridge project is well underway, with the bridge to nowhere scheduled to begin coming down Jan. 15. According to Mayor Kraig Sadownikow, the West Bend Common Council will need to put it on the agenda for the Jan. 4 meeting by Dec. 21 in order to avert the demolition. If the city does decide to save the bridge, they would have to waive about $45,000 in grants for the project from the state of Wisconsin.
While West Bend would surely enjoy and benefit from a revitalized downtown theater, the city should move ahead with demolishing the bridge to nowhere unless the theater developers can offer something more substantive than an idea.
To date, the people who want to refurbish the theater have only offered a vision. There are no detailed building or funding plans for a project. It is just an idea at this point. On the basis of this idea, they are asking the taxpayers of West Bend to waive off tens of thousands of dollars in state funding and be on the hook for tearing down the bridge should their plans never come to fruition. That is a lot of risk for the taxpayers to take on a whim and a promise.
If the developers of the theater want the bridge to nowhere to remain, the city should only agree on two conditions. First, the developers must reimburse the money from the state that would have to be foregone if the bridge is not demolished. Second, the developers must put enough money in escrow to tear down the bridge if they do not use it by a date certain. If their plans do not pan out, the taxpayers should not be stuck with a derelict bridge for another decade.
It is great for West Bend to see so much energy and money flowing into creating and maintaining a vibrant downtown area rife with shopping, restaurants, arts, music and entertainment. But it may be too little too late for saving the bridge to nowhere.