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Forest Exploration Center Raising Money

10/23/2013 - With $2.5 million in city funding for The Mandel Group's apartment project approved last week, the Forest Exploration Center has turned to fundraising in earnest, said Tom Gaertner, spokesman for the center.

"Until the (city funding) passed, there was no absolute certainty that the Mandel project would proceed," Gaertner said. "Until there was closure on that certainty, imagine the difficulty that a nonprofit has when you're talking to a major philanthropist or a foundation."

The Common Council last week approved city funding to build underground parking for The Mandel Group's 192-unit, six-building apartment complex in a semi-circle around the historic Eschweiler buildings at Innovation Campus. The Mandel project is expected to add $20 million to the city's tax base, and the city money is to be paid back as property tax collections at the site increase.
Plans for the school

The Mandel project includes an opportunity for the FEC to locate its school, the University Lab School, in the four Eschweiler buildings, the site of a former agricultural school built before World War I.

Gaertner said the FEC has a year from the time Mandel breaks ground on the project to come up with $11 million to bring the Administration building, the largest of the Eschweilers, to an operational state, and to repair the exteriors of the three other buildings to make them more presentable.

If the FEC falls short, only the Administration building would survive intact. One building would be razed, and two others would be reduced to walled gardens, preserving just the foundations. This is Mandel's "Plan B."

Phil Aiello of The Mandel Group, who spent a couple years working with the city to move the project forward, said groundbreaking could occur as early as the end of March, or could be pushed into mid-summer, depending on various factors.

Gaertner acknowledged that raising $11 million is a tall order, but he said he has confidence it would be done.

"There was a lot of hesitancy and wait-and-see out there," in the philanthropic community, before the funding was approved, he said. "Now we have certainty in that regard."

Sources of funding

Aiello and Gaertner noted that fundraising may only have to account for a portion of the funding. The FEC will seek tax credits that could be worth $2.5 million to $3 million. Another $2 million would be in the form of low-interest loans, and another $2.5 million would come from the Mandel development to help with rehabilitation of the Administration building, part of which may be a leasing office for the apartments, and common space for residents, Aiello said.

That would leave $3 million to $3.5 million to be raised from donors, Aiello said.

Gaertner said funding for and use of the Administration building still has to be worked out between the FEC and Mandel. He confirmed that the school plans to open in the fall of 2014.

Other hurdles

Beyond fundraising, a number of things still have to fall into place to make the school, and the apartment project, realities.

The University Lab School has applied to be a charter school of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Gaertner said the school expected a decision from the UWM today. The FEC also would pursue the creation of a for-profit entity for the purpose of selling the tax credits it expects to receive — "monetizing them," Gaertner said.

As a nonprofit, non-taxed entity, tax credits by themselves are not useful to the FEC, but they can be sold to a for-profit company to reduce that company's tax liability.

Gaertner said the FEC board also is considering hiring a project manager — "somebody that has a pretty high-level skill-set with regard to managing a large-scale construction project, the financing part of it, and the legal part of it as it relates to the sale of the historic tax credits."

He said the board was meeting this week to discuss a particular candidate.

Also, under the terms of the pending development agreement between the city and Mandel, the University Lab School and the Wauwatosa School District have to come to terms on a unique "governance agreement" that, to the district's satisfaction, allows them to work together in some way. The form of this deal is not yet well defined.

Challenges for Mandel

Aiello said Mandel still needs final approval from the Common Council on the development agreement, and is about ready to begin more detailed planning with its architect for the site. It also needs a fairly certain agreement with the Wisconsin Historical Society that if the FEC fails to raise the money it needs, Mandel can raze three buildings.

If Plan B comes to pass, the society would "like to continue discussions with us to be sure that we've exhausted the possibilities," he said.

-By Jon Olson, Wauwatosa Now.

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