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A Conversation by the Glass with Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt

JS_RollerCoasterBy Jeremy J. Johanski
Photos by City of Green Bay image/Chris Rand

When Green Bay residents visit the polls on Tuesday, April 7th 2015 there is a bit of history on the line for the city’s top elected office. With the completion of what would be a 4th term in office as Mayor of Green Bay, Jim Schmitt would become the longest serving mayor in Green Bay’s history. Schmitt assumed office in 2003 fresh out of a successful private sector career as a business owner and immediately set a course to revitalize Green Bay’s perishing core downtown. The Catholic family man, originally from Two Rivers, Wisconsin has watched his family grow up around him over the last 12 years and the residents have watched a mayor and a city grow and transform as well.

A Green Bay native, I was one of the participants in the life and culture of the city until my departure about five years ago. Since then I’ve been an observer from faraway Madison, Wisconsin and I’ve not forgotten what life, as I remembered it, is like in Green Bay, however I’ve seen changes, visible and intrinsic that have happened in those years and it was time for a catch-me-up. I uncorked a bottle of wine and sat down with Mayor Schmitt for an engaged, mature and respectful chat to do some reflection, evaluation and assessment in the first of my Conversations by the Glass.

In the quiet upstairs of Angelina’s Italian restaurant on Adams Street in downtown Green Bay I poured two glasses of a 2012 Cantina Miglianico Montupoli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, courtesy of Swiss Cellars. A relatively young red Italian wine, soft and soothing to sip on for an afternoon conversation.

“Here’s to our Conversation by the Glass!” Schmitt said with a raise of his glass.

Schmitt, while not a wine critic by any means said, of the many restaurants and events he attends throughout the year, those featuring wine tend to operate with a more relaxed ‘slower pace.’ Schmitt chose Angelina’s for our conversation for much the same reason. “I eat here often,” Schmitt said “Angelina’s is a great restaurant and it really brings creative people to the community. I like coming here for lunch, for dinner…I’ve probably had everything on their menu so I don’t know if I have one favorite.”

JJJ: Not having favorites I think is a very acceptable answer. I have always seen declaring favorites as a limiting thing. Having a favorite limits an open mind.

MS: My concern with having favorites as the mayor…people may think the others aren’t my favorites or they’re not great then…politically, they’re all great. Do I have a few favorites maybe, yeah I think I do.

JJJ: I’m betting that you have a favorite city. When you first set out on your first term as Mayor, I recall hearing an idealistic, newly elected Jim Schmitt hoping to have perhaps the opportunity to set a course for Green Bay over two, maybe a third term…now we’re looking at a fourth…

MS: I don’t know that I fully remember that, ha ha.

JJJ: What’s driving Jim Schmitt…what’s the passion?

MS: It’s the city…I love the city, and the harder I work at it and the longer I’m here, the more opportunity I see. There will be a time when this is over for me…but there’s so much to do. I would do this if I didn’t get paid. I have a passion for this. I’ve been offered some other things, some people have called and I’m not interested…I’ve never looked for another job since becoming mayor. This is what I want to do. The city is doing very well. It’s like being in the private sector in a business that goes from never making money to making money. The city has had record development…

JJJ: That’s always been a big thing for you. You came in promising change, big change for downtown. How do you feel you’ve done on on a 1 to 10 scale?

JS_baybeach_groupMS: I think there are a lot of people that would give us a “10” because they were so frustrated and had kind of given up and lost their confidence in downtown and now that you see housing…no one would’ve thought of that ten years ago and new businesses and those moving down here. The convention center addition…but ultimately, I’m a critic of myself and others and I think we have a ways to go but it’s definitely over a “5.” I’m not ready to give anything a 10 yet. I’m definitely very pleased but I have very high expectations of the city and our people and we all have a lot of work we can do.

JJJ: Obviously you’ve had a significant tenure in the private business sector first…do you think that’s going to continue to help the progress here and in the development strategy as well?

MS: No question, the private sector experience is helping me be the mayor I am and therefore helping the city. The private sector is the real, real world. You have to make payroll, you own the company…I did that. We made money through becoming more efficient. In the public sector you do that by going from two men and a truck to automated garbage pickup and upgrading technology and those are principles you bring in from the private sector, and that’s how we can afford to continue to do what we do in Green Bay and lower our taxes.

JJJ: There’s always seemed to be this old politics shall we say within our local politics. Older organizations…Bellin Hospital, the Green Bay Packers…I was looking at the new development being debated out in the Interstate 43 Industrial Park on Green Bay’s far-east side, the psychiatric hospital being pursued by Strategic Behavioral Health. The business has basically said we’re coming to Green Bay, but they’re giving Green Bay the option as a city, to sell them land first. I find it very interesting when out of area businesses move in and long-time area businesses such as Bellin Hospital approach and lobby the local elected officials on matters like this. You’re trying to allow for a fair and competitive market and I saw the comments you’ve made in regards to aldermen reinforcing that committees evaluating issues like this need to remember to focus on the interests in development, fair market capitalism and making sure that those values are upheld for the City of Green Bay.

MS: …Free enterprise.

JJJ: Right, I think that very much speaks to your private business background. Do you think that items like this are more important for the residents or is this more about the city’s bottom line?

Mayor Schmitt with local school children on Bike to School Day.

Mayor Schmitt with local school children on Bike to School Day.

MS: You talk about ‘old Green Bay politics’…but let’s use another term, traditional Green Bay. When we start to enhance and challenge the staple industries here…and when we talk about the Packers, Bellin, education…we brought in a charter school…there are changes that the community needs and healthcare, in this instance. When Aurora came here like 15 years ago that was controversial, but that’s because of the traditional way we did business. This Strategic Behavioral Health facility…is going to change the way that business is delivered in our community and sure, Bellin might not be fully comfortable with it, but remember, my job is to do what’s best for Green Bay.

I’m a free market enterprise person and I believe in that and the capitalistic system…it’s been around for 200 years…and if we as even a local government start over-protecting businesses, that gets dangerous…so I’m not just letting this project go forward, I’m supporting it because it’s good for Green Bay.

JJJ: Do you think you’ve changed where the needle is on any progressive mentality for Green Bay? It would have made your job as a mayor a great deal easier to have a gem like a new Packer stadium to rebuild your downtown around. Do you feel like the residents therefore are behind your drive for progress and development and don’t hold too tightly onto things that are beyond just intrinsic value?

MS: I think so. I think the reason that people really don’t like to embrace change is most often when they’re in a comfort zone. Some people that have been here for 50 or 60 years…they’re comfortable here and they’re like, ‘why are you doing this, changing this, building this…why are we putting in City Deck, the larger convention center?’ but those are things we need to do to attract talent and retain it and that’s critical. We talk about this ‘old Green Bay’ and I don’t see anything wrong with it having went along to get along…now we’re taking more of a leadership role on things and being more aggressive on securing businesses here and schools and our education system.

We’ve put our nose in a lot of things and it belongs there, we’re the state’s third largest city. We have good relationships with traditional businesses and with many that are born and raised here, but it’s my job to explain to them that what we’re doing here in Green Bay is just building on what they’ve brought here and we’re going to utilize that to build a little bit more aggressively with the interests of everyone in mind.

JJJ: I’d say that’s much about what’s the “Green Bay Way.” You’d mentioned comfort, and that’s one of the most recognizable things to me, having lived here…Green Bay is a very comfortable spot but that’s where the challenge is for progress I guess in realizing the value in change.

MS: We’d like to keep the talent and people that are here, but we must be careful not to push our people so far out of the comfort zone they enjoy here that it’s more uncomfortable now. A small example of that is Bay Beach. The place is 100 years old and it’s been much the same way for quite some time. Not much had changed outside of facility repair and painting. This is one thing where I made a decision to really enhance it and adding a major ride with the Zippin’ Pippin,’ and that was tough for a lot of people to accept at first…and now it’s showing as one of the most profitable and well attended assets the city owns, and the park is very profitable when before it had not been.
I have a 10-year plan for that and it’s still going to be 25 cents per ticket, no admission charge, free parking. That’s a small example of that progress challenge. And to look back at that Packer’s stadium referendum, that wasn’t met with 80% approval it was only 52 or 53% of the people, and that was with a lot of effort from the Packers. I think people are largely pleased with that project…and the City Deck and the convention center project.

JJJ: What does that convention center mean to Green Bay…the increase in size and what it will do for bringing people here?

MS: We’re the third largest city and we have about the 8th or 9th largest convention center space, so this will put us in the top five now with 75,000 square feet. So what we did, and this goes back to the private sector experience, is that before we built that expansion of 20,000 square feet, we talked to the customers. We didn’t run to the City Council and Department of Public Works and ask, ‘what’s the easiest to build?’ We looked for the best things that we needed and that’s why it will be successful. It will bring in millions of extra revenue annually and it’s already booked to exceed expectations by being sold out for this year. Conventioneers are good to have for a couple reasons. First, they spend per day per person, multiple times what someone coming for events like a soccer tournament does. Conventioneers stay here and eat at places downtown, not so much things like fast food. The other thing is the exposure they give the city. I always try to go and welcome the conventioneers and tell them about the city with everything from our VA Clinic and the Botanical Gardens, UW-Green Bay, NWTC… You can park your car here and do a lot of things here in three days. You can walk down to restaurants, you can jog the trails and City Deck, you can go to live events at the Meyer Theater, shop on Broadway…

Mayor Schmitt snaps a selfie at City Hall with area teens.

Mayor Schmitt snaps a selfie at City Hall with area teens.

JJJ: What is a failure or weakness you have? It seems simple but I want something you can see about yourself that perhaps you’re endeared to but know you could or should change.

MS: I think we hear too much that politicians are all thick-skinned and everything is always like water off a duck’s back but I take stuff way too personally. If we don’t get a project, or the State won’t fund one of our roads…I know it’s crazy but I seriously lay awake all night sometimes over stuff like that. I know it’s sometimes out of my control and I have to let it go, but it’s tough. Or if someone says something negative about the City of Green Bay…I take that very personally and maybe I shouldn’t…but no, I love this city and the people…the system and structure, by and large are good, but expediting things in government is also hard, but I’m learning.

JJJ: In dealing with the Packers…I went out to that Seattle fiasco, which was rough.

MS: Well that had to be cool, that’s a good city.

JJJ: It was a good time…until the fourth quarter of the game there. But here, does the mayor go to every home game?

MS: Oh yeah…I go and entertain too. We’ll bring in mayors from the visiting team cities often. They pay their own way to come here, but then we show them our city. But I’ll also help entertain customers that look at coming to Green Bay, such as some developers and businesses that look to build relationships with our city and the Packers provide an easy venue for us to offer.

JJJ: So when you are a visitor elsewhere…what’s that like stepping off a plane in another city? When you get into town, what do you look for…people, city core, culture…what strikes you first?

MS: Well, first of all, I travel and observe things under the belief that if they can do it, so can we. I always look for what we could bring to our city that they have, that we could do different or better. Maybe lighting designs (I’ve always been interested in that) or recreation spaces, events, etc.

Mayor Schmitt speaks at a ceremony at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.

Mayor Schmitt speaks at a ceremony at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.

Traveling as the Mayor of Green Bay is actually very easy. Everybody knows of Green Bay…EVERYBODY. I mean, I grew up in the area here, but you go to Jerusalem or Africa…people know Green Bay! You know though, you look around and you see we have a heart here and we want to share that with other communities. I want to be a leader for other communities, but we also have to keep learning. We can’t be totally comfortable thinking we’re doing everything alright because we always have a lot to learn. So when I travel, I really always look for what we can do better in Green Bay, our way.

JJJ: Who would be one of the few people that you’ve met while in office, famous or not that has made an impact on you that may have changed your course or something about how you operate?

MS: I get invited to a lot of 100-year-old birthday parties, and I go. I talk to them, and when you think about that, these people are 100 years old, many of whom I’ve told I’m glad you’re not running against me. But what they have given to this city I don’t know that we always appreciate and how hard they’ve worked, many whom have grown up here. What you see is that even at their age they’re still very proud of this community.

The other thing that I’ve gotten a lot more engaged with since I’ve become mayor is the Eagle Scouts. What these kids are doing in their young ages and in our country and others is simply amazing. The young people remind me to help build a community and a culture that might be someplace that they want to live. Then you have the centennials that have made this city home and I’m charged with respecting that and keeping them proud.

JJJ: You’ve mentioned the desire to get more young professionals to choose Green Bay. What about your own family?

MS: I have three college age children and I will tell you that I don’t know where they all will be, but I do know that they wish to end up in an urban environment. We’ve done a lot of traveling as a family and when we travel, we’ve always stayed in the downtown’s and never by a hotel out off a highway…my children love the urban environments, be it Nashville, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco…that’s where it’s at and that’s how they want to live. Now, are they going to live in Green Bay? I’m not so sure we’re there yet in terms of what they need and want, but it’s also a good thing that, for them, they get away for a few years. Eventually, you have to live in a city that you’re proud of, and they are proud of Green Bay and they’ve liked seeing the transition that we’ve made in the last 12 years. I think we’re really getting there. They have other things like their dad being in the media that might keep them away a little bit for now too. We do have many other things that draw attraction for young professionals like designations as best city for the creative class and that’s big. Those that are creative, concerned about the community, arts and social issues…people who have their work and community involvement blurred, and that’s awesome and that’s what we need here. So move to Green Bay!

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