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Forest Home Library Relocation Decision Questioned

By Robert Miranda, Editor, Wisconsin Spanish Journal

April 2, 2015

In January of this year, Jorge Franco, CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce - Wisconsin (HCCW), announced at their 25th Annual Awards Banquet held at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, a partnership endeavor to produce a publication called “Vision” with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

This announcement started a war of words on Facebook when the publisher of the “El Conquistador” newspaper, a member of the HCCW, criticized the partnership as another example of the HCCW ignoring its mission to the Latino community for not working with Latino owned small businesses. 

Joining in on the criticism, among many others, were Jessica McBribe an independent journalist who said “I would think the “Hispanic Chamber of Commerce” would support Hispanic-owned businesses, not help non-Hispanic businesses compete against them. That’s pretty shocking, really.”

Another member of the HCCW who criticized the partnership was Julio Maldonado, César E. Chávez Drive Business Improvement District (BID) executive who said, “I actually said the same thing to my wife while at the banquet, wow another Aqui! Then again, this move from Franco, is not surprising to me. The only business that is gained from the HCCW is that from the board themselves!…maybe it’s time to revive Hispanic Entrepreneurs of Wisconsin! He did ask me this last summer “why don’t we merge”? I laughed, as I read right through that…. He wanted our membership numbers and to say they “actually” help out small businesses! What a joke!”

And another who expressed dissatisfaction towards HCCW was Olivia Villareal, one of the owners of El Rey Grocery Stores located on Milwaukee’s south side.  She posted on the Facebook page of the publisher of the newspaper critical of HCCW this comment: “This would NOT be first time Mr. Franco kicked a Hispanic business or Hispanic organization in the teeth! Ask him why he made the Cesar E Chavez library NOT HAPPENED ON Cesar E Chavez Drive?…El Rey is tired of lip service and no positive action from this organization for us Hispanic businesses but they’re the first to put out their hand for donations!”

Tough words from Ms. Villarreal, a woman known to be reserved and very business-like. When she made this comment, she set into motion my curiosity as to why she would post this comment.

What I found out during my research is that what Olivia Villarreal was referring to was a Milwaukee Public Library decision to relocate the Forest Home Library on Milwaukee’s Southside.

The Milwaukee Public Library Building & Development Committee selected the winner between two proposals. One submitted by Gorman & Co., seeking to relocate the library and develop property known as the Hill Building on 9th & Mitchell St.  The other was Cardinal Capital Group / Journey House, seeking to relocate the Forest Home Library on to S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive. 

The Cesar E. Chavez Drive site is property owned by Olivia Villarreal and her husband, Ernesto Villarreal.

Ultimately, Milwaukee Public Library selected the Gorman & Co. Proposal. Gorman & Co has representatives who have contributed to Mayor Tom Barret’s reelection machine, records show.

Although the decision has been made, questions regarding the role of certain players in the matter, and the manner in which the selection process was conducted are now surfacing. 

This Cesar E. Chavez Drive proposal had overwhelming community support.  At a public hearing held by the library’s Building & Development Committee at the Forest Home Library on Tuesday, December 2nd, supporters overwhelmingly attended the meeting. In addition, support for this proposal was reflected in a survey conducted by the Milwaukee Public Library. However, efforts by the Spanish Journal to obtain the Milwaukee Public Library survey have been arduous. 

Sources familiar with the library’s survey say that close to 80% of respondents to the survey supported the library proposal submitted by Cardinal Capital Group / Journey House, which was the proposal to place the library on Cesar E. Chavez Drive. 
(UPDATE: After release of this article the director of Milwaukee Public Library sent the following link to the public survey it conducted: http://mpl.org/content/content/pdfs/ForestHome_SurveySummary_121114_Web.pdf

The disregard shown towards the comments made by the public and the public’s support for any public funded project is counterproductive and goes against the ideas of our democracy.  The public’s wishes should be respected by government bureaucrats.   

Review of documents the Spanish Journal received under the open records law (several documents were redacted and others requested were not released), revealed overwhelming support from the community for the Cesar E. Chavez Drive proposal by Hispanic leaders and community residents.  

Why did the Milwaukee Public Library disregard the public input it requested?

Before December 2, 2014, Alderman Jose G. Perez was a staunch supporter of the plan to place the library on Cesar E. Chavez Drive. 

However, during the Library Building & Development Committee meeting on December 2, 2014, Alderman Perez failed to speak in support of the Cesar E. Chavez Drive proposal.

Why did Alderman Jose G. Perez clam up and not speak a word of support for the Cesar E. Chavez proposal, when before this meeting, he told the community he was all for the library being placed on Cesar E. Chavez Drive?

Alderman Perez, according to sources, was sent an email from Ernesto Villarreal, asking that Perez read a statement on behalf of the Villarreal El Rey network; Perez did neither read the statement nor spoke in support of it at this meeting.

Why would the Milwaukee Public Library refuse to uphold the community’s overwhelming support for placing the Forest Home Library on S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive? Why didn’t Alderman Jose G. Perez speak at the library’s Building & Development Committee at the Forest Home Library on Tuesday, December 2, in support of placing the Forest Home library at the S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive location?

The Spanish Journal asked the alderman three times via email for an interview regarding this matter. Alderman Perez did not respond. 

When asked about community support for the Cesar E. Chavez Drive proposal, John Gurda, President of the Milwaukee Public Library Board, (who during the December 2 and December 9 meetings appointed himself as a member of the Library Building & Development Committee to ensure quorum) stated that the Hill Building had support from Jorge Franco and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  

But that support from the HCCW CEO did not come about until after the December 2 and December 9 meetings. 

The Spanish Journal obtained minutes of the Library Building & Development Committee meetings held on December 2, 2014, at the Forest Home Library, and on December 9, 2014. at the Mill Road Library. Jorge Franco does not appear in the minutes of either meeting as a presenter or speaker. Further, the minutes revealed that, after the December 2 meeting, the committee decided to put off making a decision on the matter, asking instead for more proposal details from each of the competing parties. 

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that Jorge Franco of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce all of a sudden appeared as a representative of the Hispanic community, going on record to support the Mitchell St. Hill Building proposal. 

Why did Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Jorge Franco all of a sudden mysteriously appear to support the proposal to put the library on Mitchell St., going against the majority of residents in the area? 

Attempts to make contact with Franco to speak on this matter met with silence. 

A service map provided by the director of the Milwaukee Public Library shows that the Chavez plan does appear to benefit more residents west of Cesar E. Chavez Drive than the Hill Building location does for residents east of 9th and Mitchell. 

Clearly the Cesar E. Chavez proposal would be the biggest benefit to the community, providing cultural benefits to the area.

In addition, the library being placed at this location would have been an anchor to creating what could be Milwaukee’s Latino downtown.

The Chavez proposal fits perfectly with the aims of the “South Side Plan” adopted by the city in 2009, which calls for the City of Milwaukee to support establishing the Cesar E. Chavez Drive area should be created into a “cultural, arts and entertainment district that would promote Hispanic and other ethnic group businesses and cultural facilities within a concentrated area” that includes a mixture of arts, entertainment venues, retailers, restaurants, museums, cultural attractions, office space, and public squares to enhance the Cesar E. Chavez district. 

Since the community backed this proposal overwhelmingly, and it was supported by community leaders, why didn’t the city follow its own “South side plan” for this area and go with what the community supported? 

And, again, why didn’t Alderman Jose G. Perez speak in support of the library being placed at the Cesar E. Chavez Drive site during the meeting of the Library Building Committee held on December 2 at the Forest Home Library?  

These questions were not addressed, but responses did raise concerns regarding the Cesar E. Chavez Drive library proposal having financial uncertainties.

Such argument flies in the face of one of Wisconsin’s most successful Latino developers.  Ernesto Villarreal and his El Rey network have, over the years, proven themselves to be one of the most successful Latino investors/developers in Milwaukee. To question the fiscal sustainability of their proposal is to ignore their success and commitment to this community as one of its biggest Latino investors.

The manner in which the Forest Home library selection process was conducted should be reviewed. 

Questions regarding why Milwaukee Public Library requested public input, then ignored it when overwhelmingly the public supported Cesar E. Chavez Drive to be the site of the new public library, are concerns that need to be answered. 

These concerns clearly point to a process that was at best suspect, and at worst, fixed.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on April 02, 2015, at 08:14 PM

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