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Kenosha’s plans for an innovation center are facing a serious setback as the State Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee this week excluded the nearly $10 million in funding proposed for the ambitious $19.5 million project.

The $9.75 million in state funding for the Kenosha project is part of Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed $2.38 billion in recommended budget investments in his 2021-23 capital budget plan. Requested by the city, the funding would be used to help develop the center at the 107-acre Chrysler engine plan site under the Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood Plan. The plan is focused on transforming the former blighted property east of 30th Avenue between 52nd and 60th Streets into a hub for innovation. It would include not just the innovation center, but would incorporate and modernize the surrounding neighborhoods that bolster it. The property has sat dormant for more than a decade.

KN VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: Mayor John Antaramian discusses the vision for the Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood project which is proposed to be developed at the 107-acre, former Chrysler Engine Plant site, east of 30th Avenue between 52nd and 60th streets, during an interview with Kenosha News reporter Terry Flores on Dec. 16, 2020. Julie Huls, consultant with the Waymaker Group, which specializes in transformative economic development appears via video conference. City project manager Ed St. Peter, hired to oversee the billion-dollar innovation project, as well as, the Downtown Vision plan, also attends.

Party line vote

The Republican-led Joint Finance Committee voted 11-4 along party lines on a wide-ranging motion before excluding funds for the center on Tuesday night, a representative from State Sen. Bob Wirch’s office said Wednesday. Several other funding motions were included in that vote. There were no discussion in the committee for the reasons the Kenosha project was omitted, according to Wirch’s office.

Wirch, D-Somers, along with other legislators in the Kenosha-area delegation, expressed dismay over the committee’s decision.

“’Disappointed’ isn’t a strong enough word for how I feel,” Wirch said. “The fact that mere hours after receiving the news of an increased $4.4 billion in revenue over the biennium, Republicans on the committee voting to strip out this $10 million appropriation is hard to understand.

“The innovation neighborhood project would be a boon for the local and regional economies; it would pay for itself many times over in increased economic development activity and increased revenue and tax collections in one of the most economically vital parts of the state,” Wirch said. “It doesn’t make fiscal sense, so I can only assume it’s political.”

Master plan underway

In early January, the city hired the SmithGroup, an integrated design and engineering firm, which it commissioned to create a master plan for the proposed $1 billion innovation neighborhood project.

At a May 5 information session, residents received their first look at the plans that aim foster neighborhood opportunities in education, workforce training, entrepreneurial development and job placement. The master plan focuses on connecting residents to opportunities in high-growth digital fields, as well as, science, technology and math occupations.

State. Rep. Tip McGuire, D-Kenosha, also issued a statement calling committee Republicans’ actions “baffling” in removing the funding for the innovation neighborhood despite learning the state’s fiscal health was “historically strong” under Evers’ leadership.

“As our state bounces back from the COVID-19 pandemic, the most important thing we can do is invest in the future of our economy, ensuring long-term, sustained prosperity for working families and small businesses,” McGuire said.

“We have an opportunity to create, in a space that has an important place in Kenosha’s history, an economic development hub that can help shape the Kenosha of tomorrow,” McGuire continued. “The Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood is exactly the type of project that our state should be supporting.”

Pressing to restore funding

State Rep. Tod Ohnstad, D-Kenosha, whose district includes the site of the proposed innovation neighborhood, said he was “very disappointed” with the Joint Finance Committee’s actions.

“The whole (Kenosha) delegation is very supportive of the Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood and we think it’s very shortsighted what happened at (joint finance).” Ohnstad said. “It’s not the final version of the budget and we hope that this project moves forward with the support of the governor and hopefully the legislature, as well.”

The Kenosha delegation also includes Republicans Sen. Van Wanggaard of Racine, and atate Rep. Samantha Kerkman of Salem Lakes, both of whom represent a large area of Kenosha County.

Ohnstad said the delegation would continue to work with the governor’s office, which could include negotiations to restore funding before the Joint Finance Committee makes its final budget recommendations to the Legislature later this summer. He said other means for restoring the money for the center include funding municipal governments through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Wanggaard also expressed disappointment, but agreed with Ohnstad on other funding avenues.

“Luckily, the governor has $2.5 billion to rebuild the economy, and this seems like the perfect fit for the ARPA funds,” Wanggaard said of the proposed innovation center. “Rep. Samantha Kerkman and I have already sent a letter to Governor Evers asking him to use ARPA funds for this important project.”

Kerkman could not be reached for comment.

Mayor remains hopeful

Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian said while the committee’s decision was a setback, he remains hopeful that the funding can be restored.

“We’re still working on the budget process so we’re going to continue to work with the legislature to get it back in,” Antaramian said. “I’m still very optimistic.”

The city’s request for $9.75 million in funding from the state represents half the cost of the proposed center, which the city would then match.

“We’re still hopeful our Legislature will reinstate the funding,” he said. “We still believe that this will happen and still believe that the funding will be there in the end.”

The mayor said the plans for the innovation center and neighborhood would go forth, however, even if the funding from the state were not made available. He said city administration continues to pursue other grants from various sources to see the project through to fruition.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure this occurs and I feel confident that this is the time to move forward,” Antaramian said.

This article originally ran on kenoshanews.com.

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