Early voting at Milwaukee’s Midtown Center may be in jeopardy under new owner, city says

A man enters the building to cast his vote during early voting ahead of the 2023 Spring Primary Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, located at Midtown Shopping Center located at 5740 W. Capital Dr., in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee’s popular early voting site at Midtown Center on the city’s north side may be in jeopardy because of challenges with its new Atlanta-based owners, according to city officials.

Ald. Mark Chambers, who represents the district where Midtown Center is located, said the site is important because of the sheer volume of absentee ballots cast there compared to other sites across the state and because of the high numbers of Black and brown residents who cast their ballots there.

And, he said, people just know to go there for early voting.

“Everyone knows Midtown. … It’s centralized in the entire city. It’s in my opinion the African American version of downtown,” said Chambers, who said he is working with the city’s Election Commission and Mayor Cavalier Johnson’s administration to try to keep the early voting site at the shopping center.

Common Council member Mark Chambers.

The center was sold to Atlanta-based Laureate Capital LLC earlier this year, according to city records. A representative of the company said the owners want the city to stay.

The site at 5740 W. Capitol Dr. is “by far the most popular early voting location,” Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg told the Journal Sentinel.

In both the 2020 and 2022 general elections, about 30% of the absentee ballots cast in the city during early voting came from the site — accounting for more than 18,200 and 8,500 ballots, respectively, according to a presentation she gave to the Common Council’s Finance and Personnel Committee Monday.

She said the city is exploring other sites nearby, but the primary goal is to try to stay at Midtown Center to maintain consistency for voters.

“First and foremost, we want to see if we can work out a deal with the new owner where we feel like we’re paying fair market value for the space,” she said. “We’re not looking for special treatment, but these terms and the pricing doesn’t reflect market rate.”

Woodall-Vogg said the new owners had not been responsive to the city, and, once they were, offered a smaller space for significantly more than the city had been paying. And, she said, the proposal would give the landlord the ability to relocate the voting center with 30 days’ notice to another space of at least the same size within Midtown Center.

The new owners are asking for $5,746 plus utilities each month for 3,000 square feet, she said.

As recently as this spring, she said, the city had been paying $2,130 per month, including utilities, for a space three times that size.

She said she hoped a resolution would be reached with the involvement of Johnson and Chambers.

The owners “very much would like” to keep the city as a tenant, said Peter Glaser, senior vice president at CBRE, the leasing agent for the property.

The space that the city had previously used as an early voting location is now under negotiation for a new long-term tenant and no longer available, he said.

As for the rent offered to the city for the new space, he said the city received the same quote as other potential tenants.

He said he was given authorization from the landlord to offer “certain terms to the city for a certain space” and has not yet received a response from the city. He declined to comment on the specific figures and space offered.

Alison Dirr can be reached at adirr@jrn.com.

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