The view from the mayor’s office on the third floor of the municipal building is impressive. Harbor Park is on full display on one side and downtown on the other. It is just high enough to be grand, but not so high that you can’t see a lot of detail on the ground. That view struck me as a metaphor for the man who sits behind the desk at the top of the building.
With that lovely view as our backdrop, Mayor John Antaramian spent forty-five minutes out of his busy day chatting with me about a wide variety of topics.
He got started in politics simply because he thought some things needed to change and he wanted to see what he could get done. He first ran for office in 1980, and lost by 196 votes. But he ran again and that began his ten-year career as a state assemblyman, which was followed by sixteen years as Kenosha’s mayor. Then he took a break for eight years, working as a brownfield consultant with the EPA and various cities, and taught government at Carthage College, before running for mayor again.
Mayor Antaramian likes to tackle big, involved projects that take years to get done. He sees a direct connection between redevelopment and the quality of life a community offers. That explains his love of brownfield redevelopment. When people say, “You can’t do it.” He said, he only gets more motivated.
He recalled a difficult time not so many years ago when people were predicting the rapid decline of the city. But according to the mayor, “This is a fighting community. It will not go quietly. We did the things we needed to do to survive, prosper, and grow, and we are going to do it again.”
Some are the things on the mayor’s to do list are big, visionary goals. Like…
Diversification of employment opportunities. This time around he intends to focus on attracting manufacturing, research and development, and technology jobs that will keep young people in the city and provide a more balanced economy.
Negotiating a boundary agreement with the neighboring communities on the city’s west side. While the agreement has already been negotiated, the legal implementation is still in the works. The pact allows the city ample land for continued industrial growth.
Downtown development. The city has purchased several downtown properties in the last few months, some of which will be razed next year, awaiting development opportunities.
Redeveloping the Chrysler site. This 107-acre site in the middle of the city required $20-25 million dollars to clean up, most of which has already been raised. The vast majority of the site will be cleaned up by the end of next year. The remaining 13 acres will be cleaned up by ejecting enzymes into the soil that will eat the oil that is twenty feet underground. The enzymes digest it, biodegrade it, and then die off. The future of the site will be determined through interaction with the residents of the city, but could include small businesses, a business incubator, parks, or a fitness center.
The mayor claims a failed attempt to get an airport runway lengthened in first term, taught him an important lesson about involving people in the process, and he does not intend to make that error again.
Two of his top priorities are to improve the aging infrastructure of the city, including its streets, buildings, and lakefront retention walls. However, the first thing he said when asked about priorities for this term was the need to invest in the neighborhoods. He is bringing back the beat cops and is expanding the outpost program that will have adults in place at some of the city’s parks to teach various skills and be positive roll models for kids.
Development and quality of life go hand-in-hand. That’s the ground level view that’s also important.
I sought out the mayor because I have been fascinated by the city’s redevelopment and the man behind it. Not every city has done so well at re-inventing itself as Kenosha.
My home town in Missouri was once one of the most progressive and booming cities in the entire nation, but has suffered from over a half century of neglect and lack of leadership. Old parts of the city are sadly neglected with numerous houses and old warehouses literally falling in on themselves. The good jobs never came back and the economy and quality life declined.
I see the difference that leadership makes.
Originally posted in the Kenosha News, “Sundays with..” column on 12.11.16