Common Ground, a well-organized coalition of religious and community groups and nonprofits, is ratcheting up its opposition to using public money for a new multipurpose arena in downtown Milwaukee.
And it has a new target: Wes Edens, one of the co-owners of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Edens’ Fortress Investment Group owns Nationstar Mortgage, a mortgage services company that Common Ground charges is responsible for at least 14 abandoned and deteriorating foreclosed properties in Milwaukee.
Common Ground members are advocating loudly for public money to improve playgrounds and recreational spaces across Milwaukee County as a way to improve neighborhoods. They say it is particularly galling that a driving force behind the push for a new arena is also connected to the kind of neighborhood problems they are trying to address.
“We are going to hold them accountable,” Bob Connolly, Common Ground’s staff director, said of Nationstar. “They are responsible for those abandoned properties.”
Common Ground delegates will vote Sunday whether to oppose tax dollars for the new arena – a foregone conclusion that nonetheless represents the first significant citizen-based opposition to the use of tax dollars for a new arena. County boards in Ozaukee, Racine and Waukesha counties have already gone on record in opposition to the use of public tax dollars for a new arena or expanded convention center.
No specific financing plan for a new arena – expected to cost between $400 million and $500 million – has emerged, though co-owners Edens and Marc Lasry and key members of Milwaukee’s business community have acknowledged public tax dollars will be needed. Lasry and Edens say they hope to select a site by year’s end and hope to break ground next spring.
The National Basketball Association has told the Bucks’ owners that a new arena needs to be in place by the fall of 2017 or the league could buy the team back for $575 million and move it elsewhere.
searing critique by The New York Times The situation has attracted national media attention. A recently highlighted the irony of wealthy individuals meeting the demands of a multibillion dollar professional sports league by asking taxpayers for money – while public school and sports facilities in Milwaukee fester from neglect.
Fair Play For months, Common Ground, one of the best known and arguably most effective community groups in the region, has been pushing its Campaign for improved playground spaces. Common Ground’s original position stated that, if public funds are going to be used for a new arena, at least $150 million of these funds must be used to improve Milwaukee County public schools’ athletic facilities and recreational spaces.
The coalition has asked to meet with Edens and Lasry to make its case. With their patience running out, Common Ground leaders say the next step is to formally oppose the use of public tax dollars for the arena and expose what they say are Edens’ connections to dilapidated housing in parts of the city. Public tax money, the group reasons, should go to fixing broken-down homes and playgrounds, not sparkling arenas.
Common Ground organizers say they expect as many as 1,000 members will gather Sunday at Parklawn Assembly of God Church, 3725 N. Sherman Blvd. The meeting begins at 3:30 p.m.
At Sunday’s meeting, organizers also will ask members to sign a letter to Edens asking him to bring Nationstar Mortgage’s CEO to Milwaukee to review the properties Nationstar is responsible for in the city.
In a statement emailed Saturday, Bob Cook, the Bucks’ vice president for business affairs, said the Bucks offered to meet with Common Ground officials. Cook said the group declined the offer, saying they wanted a meeting only with Lasry and Edens. Common Ground officials confirmed that version of events.
“We are currently working with city leaders, elected officials and community organizations throughout Milwaukee to do something very special. This is about keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee and revitalizing the city. And it will happen by working together as a community,” Cook said.
Ald. Willie Wade, whose aldermanic district has suffered the ravages of foreclosure, crime and unemployment, said Common Ground is acting like a bully.
“They’re out of order,” Wade said Saturday. “Marc and Wes have to deal with the people who make the decisions, the people who are elected. Common Ground is out of order to think they can come in and circumvent that. They are being disrespectful to the citizens who elected us.”
Wade is a member of the city’s Redevelopment Authority as well as other key Common Council committees involved in redevelopment.
Keisha Krumm, Common Ground’s lead organizer, said she believed Lasry and Edens should use their own money to build an arena. “They committed to meet with us and they haven’t done it. We say, ‘Build it yourself.'”
11 recreational and school athletic spaces in Milwaukee County it says are in the most need of improvement. In September, Common Ground identified The estimated cost to improve and upgrade those 11 spaces: anywhere from $63 million to $70 million.
released a study of 268 recreational sites In June 2013, Common Ground in the county and determined that 65% of the recreational and athletic spaces were rated terrible, poor or fair. The 65% does not take into account the 16 sites in the county that do not have any outdoor athletic facilities.
The coalition, which has been working in selected city neighborhoods to address the foreclosure problem, has had successes on that front. It was able to persuade five banks to give $31 million to maintain and rehab foreclosed properties in Milwaukee.
In Nationstar’s case, Common Ground researchers used city records and found at least 14 properties under the name Nationstar Mortgage. The properties – located in eight different aldermanic districts – show up on the city’s vacant property list and are, or are believed to have been, subject to a foreclosure proceeding. Common Ground officials say there may be more properties involved.
“We want those neighborhoods fixed,” Connolly said.
Nationstar is a mortgaging servicing company that collects loan payments from borrowers and performs other services in connection with mortgages and mortgage-based securities. In many cases, a bank left with a property because of the owner’s failure to keep paying on it will hire a company like Nationstar to service it. That can include keeping the property in good shape.
In 2006, a limited liability company called FIF HE Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of Edens’ Fortress Investment Group LLC, bought Centex Home Equity Company LLC for a reported $520 million and changed the name to Nationstar Mortgage. Since 2012, Edens has been chairman of the board at Nationstar, and the company has since grown to be the fifth largest mortgage-servicing company in the country, a company spokesman said Friday.
Jamie Merrill, a Nationstar spokesman, said in an email that the company has more than 2.2 million customers nationwide, including 20,000 in Wisconsin. Of those 20,000, he said, more than 1,500 are 60 days or more delinquent on their payments.
Merrill added that, since 2009, Northstar has worked to keep more than 4,000 Wisconsin residents in their homes. He said Nationstar has modified mortgages for homeowners, utilized government assistance programs to refinance mortgages, and designed loan repayment plans.
“In the event of foreclosure, as servicer, Northstar always works hard to preserve the value of properties under its management throughout the process and appreciates input from the local community,” Merrill said.
This article was republished with permission from the author, Don Walker. This article was originally published in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.