Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday he is “very interested” in helping the city of Madison develop a public market.
Walker’s comments come a day after Mayor Paul Soglin said he and Walker spoke Friday during which Soglin asked for the governor’s help in creating the market. The mayor’s request came in the wake of the impending closure of Oscar Mayer’s Madison headquarters.
Walker acknowledged that conversation, said he spoke again with Soglin on Tuesday, and that he looks forward to speaking with Soglin further about ways the state can help bolster the food and beverage industry in the state — which the governor called a focus of his administration.
“We’d have to look at what role we could play, but we’re very interested in it,” Walker told reporters after an event in Madison.
Soglin said Tuesday he requested state funding for the public market “particularly in light of what’s happened with Oscar Mayer, where in two years we’ll have so many food production workers looking for employment.”
He added he was “pleasantly surprised” by Walker’s response.
Soglin announced last month that he wants to start construction on a $14 million public market with retail, wholesale and food production facilities on the East Side by 2018.
The governor also said he spoke Monday with Kraft Heinz’s chief executive officer Bernardo Hees and a company vice president, who told him there is nothing that state or local officials could have done to prevent the company from shuttering Madison’s Oscar Mayer headquarters.
“Even before the Kraft Heinz merger, they went back and looked at information that suggested Kraft had been looking at this possibility over the past decade,” Walker said about the CEO’s explanation.
Michael Mullen, a spokesman for the company, said he and Hees met with Walker to discuss the closure of the Madison facility.
“The governor understands that the closing of the Madison factory was based entirely on the need to reduce operational redundancies and eliminate excess capacity within our North American network,” Mullen said in a statement.
“We are committed to working alongside Governor Walker and his team to find a potential buyer.” Mullen didn’t answer questions about Kraft’s previous consideration of closure.
Walker said the building’s age and the fact that it was operating at about 40 percent of its capacity were factors. Walker added that he asked if there was anything the state could do to help build a new facility in Madison “and they pointed out that was part of the reason why they didn’t contact (anyone), because they didn’t see that as an option.”
The company announced that decision last week, and since then questions have surfaced about how much state and local officials did to keep Oscar Mayer in the state.
On Monday, Soglin also asked for assurances that the state would help the 1,000 employees who face layoffs find “as good a job as they have presently” and that the Department of Workforce Development be adequately staffed to provide assistance.
Walker said Tuesday he discussed with Kraft Heinz officials ways to help affected employees find “gainful employment” by the time of the 2017 closure, through regional economic development entities and the state’s workforce investment board, and to find a buyer for the property.
Though Kraft Heinz officials said last week the goal is to find a buyer that could potentially keep the facility open, the likelihood of that happening could be small, according to experts.
“It is highly unlikely (Kraft Heinz) could sell this facility for a similar use,” said Kyle Stiegert, an agricultural and applied economics professor at UW-Madison and an expert on the economics of food retailing and manufacturing. “To unlock the value of this property, they will find a buyer that can convert it to one of many possible urban uses that fits with the major trends in Downtown Madison.”
Walker spoke briefly with a Kraft Heinz lobbyist over the summer and discussed meeting in the future, but when asked Tuesday about the details of that conversation, Walker said the lobbyist did not mention why Kraft Heinz wanted to meet.
“It wasn’t really a meeting — it was a contact he made, I believe at an event, and just asked about meeting at some point in the future,” said Walker. “He didn’t say specifically other than he thought it would be good to get together with leadership.”
According to records provided by the governor’s office, Walker didn’t follow up with the company until prompted by a local lobbyist in October. At that point, Kraft Heinz officials no longer wanted to meet.