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UWM's Innovation Center in Wauwatosa moving forward

10/13/2012 - By Tom Daykin of the Journal Sentinel

Na Jin Seo is creating devices to help stroke survivors better use their hands, while Junhong Chen is researching ways to improve early
detection of infectious diseases.

Both engineering professors are eager to see the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Innovation Park development in Wauwatosa finally moving forward after a yearlong delay.

Innovation Park's first building will be a business accelerator, a facility where UWM faculty, staff and students can conduct research with potential business benefits. Construction will begin by Dec. 1, with completion expected by next fall.

The federally funded building will
provide bigger and better labs for Seo, Chen and others to collaborate with businesses to research and build product prototypes.

Innovation Park is north of Watertown Plank Road and east of U.S. Highway 45, near the Medical College of Wisconsin, Froedtert Hospital and other medical institutions. That's an advantage for researchers like Seo, who plans to use Medical College equipment and hospital patients to help evaluate new medical devices.

"Having that accelerator building is going to help bring multiple investigators to work on things together," Seo said.

That type of research - with the potential for business spinoffs - is driving the creation of Innovation Park. UWM also is seeking $75 million
in state funds for an interdisciplinary academic research center, while recruiting tech-based businesses that want to build facilities near
university scientists.

"This is what attracts companies to be here," said David Gilbert, UWM Foundation president.

Accelerator's slow startEfforts to create Innovation Park began in earnest about four years ago, under hen-Chancellor Carlos Santiago. In 2009, the Milwaukee County Board and then-County Executive Scott Walker approved the $13.55 million sale of 89 acres of the County Grounds to a UWM Foundation affiliate as the site for Innovation Park.

The following year, the Wauwatosa Common Council approved a $12 million city tax financing district to pay for roads, sewers and other improvements. The city's debt will be paid off through property taxes generated by the business accelerator, and other privately owned buildings.

Also, the UWM Foundation was awarded a $5.4 million federal grant to build the accelerator. Those developments occurred in September 2010, just days after Michael Lovell, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science, was named interim chancellor to replace Santiago. Lovell has since been named UWM chancellor.

In February 2011, the foundation affiliate completed its purchase of the land after raising $5 million in private funds, including $2 million
from retired business executive Michael Cudahy, for a down payment. That happened after the County Board agreed to extend the deadline for a second $5 million payment from January 2012 to February 2014. UWM Foundation officials said the soft economy had hurt fundraising efforts.

At that time, Gilbert said construction of the accelerator would start in 2011. Development firm Mandel Group Inc. began negotiating a purchase of the site's historic red brick buildings, with plans to convert them into apartments.

But those plans ran into delays.
Even though a groundbreaking ceremony was held in August 2011, construction of the accelerator didn't occur. The property had more complications than expected, Gilbert said, requiring the foundation affiliate to obtain easements to accommodate underground steam tunnels from a nearby power plant.
Also, the foundation needed several approvals from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which is providing the federal grant.

That approval process took longer than expected, Gilbert said, in part because key administration officials left the agency.

With the agency now providing final approvals, Innovation Park will soon take bids from construction firms, Gilbert said, with work on the
25,000-square-foot accelerator to start by December. Excavation work for the building has already been done.

Public improvements, including a street that runs through Innovation Park, from Watertown Plank Road to Swan Blvd., also will be built, withcompletion by next summer. The main road will be known as Discovery Parkway.

Innovation Park has tentatively agreed to sell the red brick buildings, designed by noted architect Alexander Eschweiler, to Mandel Group.
But the firm now says it's feasible to preserve only one of the four buildings, which would be converted into a fitness room and community
rooms for the proposed apartments, and other uses.

Another building would be demolished, while two others would be largely dismantled and converted into public open space, featuring portions of their red brick walls and new trees. Mandel would build nearly 200 apartments at a cost of $38 million, and wants to the city to provide $2.5 million to help pay for building restoration costs - with the money repaid through the tax financing district.

Preservationists oppose the demolition, and the city is studying Mandel's claims that preserving the buildings would cost too much in return
for the income they would generate. That study is to be completed by the city Historic Preservation Commission's November meeting. If the commission denies the demolition request, its ruling can be appealed to the Common Council.

The UWM Foundation is counting on the Eschweiler parcel's sale to help make payments to Milwaukee County for the land purchase, Gilbert said. He also said replacing the vacant, boarded-up buildings with new development will help attract businesses interested in buying parcels at Innovation Park.

Some prospects, whom Gilbert wouldn't identify, have already moved on to other locations because of the delays, he said.

Opponents say creating research facilities in Wauwatosa strains the ability of faculty to develop research partnerships with their colleagues in related fields at the main east side campus.

Also, skeptics say the track record of universities in creating research-oriented business parks is mixed, with more poor performers than success stories.

Aside from the accelerator, the only other publicly disclosed building plan is for a 155,000-square-foot university research facility, which would combine several academic disciplines in biomedical engineering. UWM is seeking $75 million in the 2013-'15 state budget for that project.

Scientists from the Medical College, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, BloodCenter of Wisconsin and other institutions would have a
presence in that facility, said Tom Luljak, UWM vice chancellor of university relations.

Meanwhile, Innovation Park plans to sell seven other parcels that would accommodate privately financed buildings totaling about 800,000
square feet, Gilbert said.

With construction starting on the accelerator and Discovery Parkway, and a possible spring construction start for the apartments, companies
that have shown interest in Innovation Park will now see the development is real, he said.

"We've been in a holding pattern," Gilbert said. "But that's starting to shake loose."

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