LAWRENCE – Opponents of a mega-warehouse in this town southwest of Green Bay are frustrated that their city council has approved the project without telling them who their new neighbor will be.
The town of Lawrence residents who live closest to the location worry about the traffic, visual impact, and how well a 2.9-million-square-foot, 24-hour, five-story warehouse is near a growing residential area fits. Based on several indications in the planning documents, you suspect that the tenant will be Amazon. But city officials and the developer, Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co., have refused to say so and are keeping a secret what critics see as an important detail in the warehouse’s approval.
City officials who reviewed the application know who will inhabit the building, but they signed nondisclosure agreements, leaving it to the developer to decide when to identify the tenant of the $ 200 million building.
The chairman of the city, Lanny Tibaldo, said he understands that the residents want to know who it is. He is “completely confident that this is a great project for the city.”
Trammell Crow was the public face of the warehouse proposal, which the city council approved on December 13th. The company said it met with residents and adjusted plans to address some of their concerns. But the company said it was too early in the process to reveal the identity of the warehouse’s end-user, and described an interview request from the Press Gazette.
The secrecy of this element of the megawarehouse plan in Lawrence, a fast-growing city of 6,300 residents split in half by Interstate 41, is just the latest example of the concessions increasingly being demanded from developers.
Local government often says yes to confidentiality requirements, but state laws about open government, jurisdiction, and government Guidelines published by the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office of Open Government advocate transparency over a company’s business interests, said Bill Lueders, president of the government regulator Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
“The public will not move the applicant to move into the community, but the tenant,” said Leuders. “The public could have legitimate concerns about the tenant’s identity. This information should have been disclosed from the start.”
He quoted a 2007 Court of Appeal judgment in a case filing Citizens for Responsible Development against the city of Milton after the city closed all meetings and discussions about a company’s efforts to build an ethanol factory there. The city said it did so in part because the ethanol company requested secrecy during the negotiations.
The appeals court ruled that the ethanol company “may have wanted to avoid bitter debate about its proposed facility by keeping its talks with Milton secret, but that is not a valid reason for closing Milton’s meeting” and that “contentious issues are the most debated “. Need for public discussion. “
This is not to say that there aren’t any legitimate reasons a developer or tenant might need anonymity. State open government laws contain some narrow exceptions for these situations. Nevertheless, said LÃ¼ders, state law clearly favors openness to the public.
Why the anonymity?
There are a number of reasons for a property developer or potential tenant to avoid being publicly identified while the local government is reviewing development plans.
Tenants may still be negotiating leases or a land purchase may be ongoing. Property developers and national companies often secure planning options for the acquisition of land subject to the approval of the municipality. Businesses can reach out to a local government to ask them to review preliminary plans, discuss public assistance, or determine what issues are pending.
In general, what information is shared when and what information is shared depends on the company’s preferences. Eric DeKorne, Vice President of Business maintenance and expansion with the Greater Green Bay Chamber, said it is common for companies to seek some confidentiality while considering taking on a project.
“In business development, be it a relocation project, an attraction project or even an existing business expansion, many are kept confidential when a company goes through a due diligence process, a process that can take a long time,” said DeKorne. âSome of these can be a chicken-or-egg situation where they have a potential project but need three steps. If you don’t get it, you can’t get your lease. “
Barbara Koldos, Vice President for Business Development at New North Inc., tenants are sometimes kept confidential until land purchase and other contracts are in place. It is common for New North officials to sign nondisclosure agreements at the beginning of conversations to protect project information.
“Sometimes they work in multiple locations to determine the best location for their project or negotiate other elements of the contract and don’t want the company name to change elements of the negotiation,” said Koldos.
Controlling land and other costs can also be a factor. Tibaldo, now retired, recalled experiences from his career as a school district director.
“I know if you have to build schools, prices go up the moment they know you have a deal,” he said. âWhen you need material, prices go up. You have to be aware that this is how it works in today’s world. “
Amazon’s pattern of secrecy
However, not every company or developer demands confidentiality when planning a new development.
Georgia-Pacific Corp. For example, also hired a real estate development firm to develop a 1.1 million square foot distribution center in Lawrence in 2020. Georgia-Pacific made no bones about its involvement and company officials attended public meetings as the project went through review.
The application was withdrawn in November 2020 over concerns from local residents and the company shifted its focus to De Pere, where work on the $ 50 million warehouse began.
Amazon, on the other hand, has sought a high level of anonymity as it expands its delivery and distribution network with massive warehouses to keep pace with sales growth and expand the two-day delivery service for more customers.
Similar projects were carried out by property developers on behalf of initially unknown tenants in Beloit, Eichenbach and Greenville. It turned out that it was all Amazon as far as LÃ¼ders was concerned.
“Local officials should not comply with Amazon’s request for secrecy,” said LÃ¼ders.
In Greenville, city officials continued to refuse to name Amazon, even after construction of its 110,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center began in March. The construction company working on the warehouse also relied on a nondisclosure agreement when they refused to name the tenant.
An Amazon spokesman last week declined interview requests, saying there was no information on future development plans. The spokesperson added that Amazon “is constantly exploring new locations and weighing a variety of factors when it comes to developing websites to best serve customers.”
Lawrence officials have continued to focus on what they can control and what they need to do to prepare the ground for the distribution center to be built.
The city needs to work out a plan to extend the water and sanitation services along Mid Valley Drive and find ways to pay the estimated cost of $ 6-7 million.
Wetzel said the expansion will serve several properties in the area and that the supply of utilities at the intersection of Mid Valley and Freedom Road will make the area more attractive to other commercial and industrial developments.
Tibaldo said the city is considering creating a third Incremental Tax Finance District (TIF) to fund the utility expansions, but that won’t be discussed until next year. A TIF district collects property tax revenue from new developments in order to pay out infrastructure improvements. Wetzel said the city could also collect special assessments of landowners who would benefit from expanding the utility company, provided the city does so in a fair and equitable manner.
Wetzel said the city must also coordinate development plans and site access with Brown County, as the site is bounded by the county’s highways (Freedom Road and Williams Grant Drive) and a city-maintained road, Mid Valley Drive will.
The city will also consult with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on its plans to rebuild Interstate 41 from Appleton to De Pere. These plans include converting the Freedom Road interchange from traditional left-right turns to roundabouts.
As part of the I-41 project, the Freedom Road-Mid Valley intersection would also be realigned and reconstructed. WisDOTs I-41 project page currently states that the property purchase for the project would be in the years 2023-2024. It has not yet been determined when construction will start.
CONNECTED: Six Things You Should Know About Wisconsin’s Plan to Expand I-41 from Appleton to De Pere, including additional roundabouts and public hearings