Farming for answers
Pabst development a more complex question than ‘what’s going on out there?’

By Ryan Billingham - Enterprise Staff

Aug. 28, 2015

 A 2006 conceptual plan included several renderings of a vibrant Pabst Town Centre retail development. 
Submitted rendering

OCONOMOWOC — “Pabst Farms” are two words that often stir up strong opinions among residents of Oconomowoc. After a decade, people still are asking a seemingly simple question: “What’s going on out there?”

It is a fair question, but not a simple one. In fact, it might be the wrong question to ask, or at least the wrong question to ask first.

What is most often referred to as Pabst Farms comprises 1,100 acres located at the Interstate 94 and Highway 67 interchange. It contains about 540 acres of developable land and sits both within and outside of a now-closed tax incremental financing district called TIF No. 3.

Pabst Town Centre, a planned use retail development that has seen little growth despite the bright promise of its many conceptual plans — some looking like retail Disneylands or quaint English city centers — is only a part of the overall Pabst Farms property, though it is often the focus of questions from residents.

 Today, parts of Pabst Farms are vacant. Fields of soybeans rather than a bustling Pabst Town Centre are a main feature of the 1,100-acre parcel of land.
Eric Oliver/Enterprise Staff

Bad timing

Officials include former Mayor Jim Daley and current Mayor Dave Nold have answered that question by blaming bad timing and the poor retail environment.

Tim Blum, executive vice president and managing director of HSA Commercial Real Estate’s Retail Brokerage Division, and an agent for the successful Mayfair Collection development in Wauwatosa, said a better question might be “why does Oconomowoc want a development like (Pabst Farms)?”

Blum said big mixed-use developments are “messy and expensive” and questioned whether a community the size of Oconomowoc — a community also bookended by retail developments in Delafield and Johnson Creek — has the population density to sustain it.

“Oconomowoc is a special place for different reasons; one is the lifestyle there,” Blum said referring to its reputation as part of Lake Country — a laid-back, semirural and affluent community.

In Wauwatosa, he said, people “are living on top of each other” so large retail developments make more sense.

Oconomowoc City Planner and Zoning Administrator Jason Gallo said it is fair to question the viability of Oconomowoc’s population density for Pabst Farms. Gallo did not work for the city in Pabst Farms’ earliest stages, but said it could be a key factor in its success or failure.

“That’s what I’ve heard. We don’t have the rooftops to support it. I don’t know how many rooftops we need. It might be 50 years and we still don’t have the rooftops to support that,” Gallo said.

He said Oconomowoc cannot compete with traffic counts at places like the Mayfair Collection. He said the answer is a destination retailer.

“I can say this because they are not coming here, but that is why it needs an Ikea-type business, something that would draw people from Madison and Milwaukee,” he said. But Gallo, who has seen many iterations of the Pabst Town Centre plan in his six years with the city, also said he feels Pabst Farms overall has been a success for Oconomowoc, particularly the TIF #3 it inhabited.

According to a 2014 report from staff, the creation of TIF #3 has generated significant tax base for the city and paid off its debt early, and it served as a donor TIF for improvements downtown. The TIF was closed in 2014.

By that measure, Gallo said, he feels Pabst Farms and the TIF #3 has been a great thing for Oconomowoc.

 The Mayfair Collection in Wauwatosa has weathered the economic downturn. In Oconomowoc, Pabst Farm Town Centre has not done as well, leaving some to wonder if the development is just too big for the city.
Eric Oliver/Enterprise Staff

Taxes and zoning

Some members on the Common Council have recently expressed concern about tax losses due to zoning changes allowing farming to take place on the undeveloped commercial land in Pabst Farms.

Wisconsin follows something called use-based assessment. Property is assessed by how it is being used rather than how it is zoned. Land that might be worth millions of dollars as commercial real estate — which Pabst Farms surely is — is assessed for tax purposes at agricultural zoning prices.

The result is a huge discrepancy between the actual value of the land and what the owners are paying in assessed value.

Controversy magnet

The development has now seen five different administrations, encountered several controversies and objections from both residents and government officials.

In 2013, the Common Council rejected permits for a second Kwik Trip on Highway 67, prompting the developers of Pabst Farms to file a claim against the city that it was hand-picking which retailers would be allowed at Pabst Farms.

The council relented and rescinded the vote. The Kwik Trip was built. Alderwoman Cathleen Slattery resigned her seat on the council after emails obtained through an open records request revealed questionable tactics and the use of a private email address to communicate to constituents.

Shortly after that, a grassroots movement to reject a deal that was apparently being worked up by the developers for a Walmart and Sam’s Club formed and began protesting the move.

This time it was the developers who relented and promised — for the time being — they would make no deal with Walmart.

More recently, Alderman Matt Rosek has brought attention to Pabst Farms holding four liquor licenses, all of which have gone unused for a decade.

Rosek has argued the licenses should have stronger municipal regulations to limit how long a liquor license can be held without it being put to use, so other entrepreneurs or businesses can buy them.

Pabst Farms developer Peter Bell said he was traveling this week, and was unable to comment on several aspects of Pabst Farms. Previously, emails and phone messages have gone unanswered.

In a previous interview, William Niemann, executive vice president of Pabst Farms Development, Inc., said he is positive about the future of the development. He said an anchor store will be key in it gaining momentum.

 Another rendering of a 2006 conceptual plan for the Pabst Town Centre retail development.
Submitted rendering


Planning for the development of Pabst Farms began in the 1990s by the city of Oconomowoc and the then Town of Summit. A Tax Incremental Financing District, or TIF, is used to promote tax base expansion by financing public improvements in an area. TIF #3 was established on Oct. 2, 2001. Below is a timeline of when improvements first came onto the tax assessment roll.

2003, Summit Elementary School and YMCA at Pabst Farms

2004, Ace Precision (Pabst Farms); Kwik Trip, Waukesha State Bank and Sherwin Williams (non-Pabst Farms, but inside the TIF)

2005, Roundy’s Distribution Center (Pabst Farms); Bruno Independent Living Aids (non-Pabst Farms)

2006, Pabst Farms Marketplace and Wisconsin Harley-Davidson (Pabst Farms)

2007, M& I Bank, Hilton Garden Inn, Sentry Equipment (Pabst Farms); Stein Garden & Gifts (non-Pabst Farms)

2008, ALDI, Oconomowoc Medical enter, Chili’s (non-Pabst Farms)

2009, Village Crossing condos, Staybridge Suites, Fastenal (Pabst Farms)

2010, fire station (Pabst farms; Brennan’s (non-Pabst Farms

2011, Two more Village Crossing condos (Pabst Farms); Valley Road development including Jimmy John’s (non-Pabst Farms)

2012, Village Crossing clubhouse (Pabst Farms)

2014, Lake Country Manufacturing