O‘condo’mowoc at a crossroads
Upcoming vote will decide fate of embattled project

By Ryan Billingham - Enterprise Staff

Oct. 30, 2014

OCONOMOWOC — As voters go to the polls to choose the next family of state leaders, the Oconomowoc Common Council will hold an important vote of its own Tuesday night.

The council could make a decision about the future of Fowler Lake Village, a development project that has raised concern in parts of the community. The up-or-down vote will determine if the plan will continue. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m.

At the Oconomowoc Common Council’s meeting on Oct. 21, the issue was highlighted again during the public comments session of the meeting agenda.

However, for the first time in months, the speakers were largely in favor of the project.

It was a marked difference in an ongoing discussion that has been roundly criticized, albeit by many of the same people, meeting after meeting.

Stop the Swap movement

The Stop the Swap movement has been the most vocal party in the debate and is advocating for opponents to mobilize for Tuesday’s meeting. It has a Facebook page and recently posted a video made by Christina Donald that outlines the reasons why Oconomowoc is special and encourages residents to contact their representatives about the project.

The Facebook page lists no contact information and does not state who the organizers are behind Stop the Swap. As of press time, it has 647 “likes.”

The current debate over development in the city is clearly centered on downtown.

Mayor Jim Daley supports Fowler Lake Village, but said it is difficult to encapsulate the issue because it has so many moving parts and has a history many opponents don’t take into consideration.

Daley referenced an earlier plan that ultimately failed due to financial and strategic constraints brought about through the city’s development process.

Called The Hitchcock Plan, it was similar to the current Fowler Lake Village plan in that it featured a land swap with developer Jeff Seymour. The condos would have been developed where the Village Green is now and the city parking lot would have been a more park-like setting.

Daley said the plan failed because it was too costly and too complicated and suffered from poor timing when the housing bubble burst.

However, Daley said, the plan did attract attention from planning associations and led to accolades for the city.

The Fowler Lake Village project with its swap and private financing is a better option, Daley said.

Competing visions

Opponents of the plan have continually raised objections to nearly every piece of the plan, including the financing, the land swap and loss of open space.

Paulette Traver, who often posts on the Stop the Swap Facebook page, said at the Oct. 21 meeting she fears after the project is built there will be nothing but memories of “all this beautiful, open space.”

Daley counters that thinking with his own view that rather than a beautiful open space the land behind City Hall is a “broken-down parking lot” and that Fowler Lake Village offers an opportunity to enhance the area not detract from it.

Developer Seymour has a similar view.

“The new site allowed us to attract immediate buyer and investor interest because the demand for new stylish condos, to add a significant restaurant and outdoor dining space at the lakefront and to add much more ownership retail space for small unique shops,” Seymour said.

Former Mayor Floss Whalen, a proponent of the project, said it’s all about balance.

She said when the Carnation Company left Oconomowoc it had a huge impact economically, but also indicated the city needed to ensure it wouldn’t again become dependent on one large company.

“We needed wealth, but not one big business,” she said.

At the time Carnation left, Wisconsin had policies that allowed Oconomowoc to be picky about development, Whalen said.

Unlike today, there was a generous shared revenue stream and tax base played a lesser role in driving development. This allowed Oconomowoc to turn down businesses that didn’t fit.

“We didn’t have to take ‘dirty businesses,’ for example,” Whalen said, referring to business that could potentially be environmental hazards.

When a recession hit in the 1980s and revenue sharing stopped, things changed. The city had to combat the economic downturn and decided to commission an economic development plan. That plan called for a more balanced approach to development.

For Whalen, that’s a guiding principle that includes housing.

“What a leader has to realize is that there are people that haven’t been born yet. There are people that don’t live here yet, and you have to serve those people, too,” she said.

>>PART ONE: Social media has embraced a new word with sarcastic glee, but is the city really becoming...O'CONDO'MOWOC?

>>PART TWO: Developments often not as surprising as perceived

>>RELATED: Council hears more Fowler Lake discussion

>>RELATED: Crowd again attacks Fowler condo project

>>RELATED: O‘condo’mowoc series wants you to be part of development discussion

Email: rbillingham@conleynet.com