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CUNA Mutual plans draw flak
Company to develop land provided for expansion

This map
shows the parcels involved in the land swap between CUNA Mutual and University
Research Park. The deal will leave CUNA Mutual with 53 acres, which it plans to
This map shows the parcels involved in the land swap between CUNA Mutual and University Research Park. The deal will leave CUNA Mutual with 53 acres, which it plans to develop.
Credit:David Michael Miller
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CUNA Mutual Group is planning a major mixed-use project on and around its west-side Madison campus, reopening old wounds over how some of this land was acquired.

Back in the early 1980s, relates former Mayor Paul Soglin, CUNA Mutual said it needed more land for eventual expansion. "They gave some kind of alert or signal: We may leave," says Soglin, now working for a union representing CUNA workers.

The UW-Madison, prodded by business and civic leaders including then Mayor Joel Skornicka, agreed to sell the company 60 acres of University Research Park land.

CUNA Mutual never did expand. But by the early 1990s, the research park began feeling constrained. Director Mark Bugher says that, on several occasions in recent years, the university has made "overtures" to get the land back. CUNA Mutual, however, would not go along. It had other plans for the land.

Soglin, as a hired gun for OPEIU Local 39, has rapped CUNA Mutual for moving jobs out of Madison and suggested that the company is seeking to demutualize - a change in corporate structure that could mightily enrich its directors. (CUNA Mutual denies any such intent, but last year moved its legal headquarters to Iowa, which has laxer demutualization laws.) He pegs the company's refusal to return the land as a betrayal.

"Back in the early 1980s," he says, "the entire community - the city of Madison and the university - did the right thing to help CUNA Mutual, thinking of the greater good. Now that the university would like the land back, CUNA Mutual is only looking at one thing: how it can maximize the value of that land to CUNA Mutual. There is no consideration for the larger community."

CUNA Mutual spokesman Rick Uhlmann refutes this, saying the company's land buys in the early 1980s provided critical "seed money" to the research park. It acquired the land "not just for expansion" but also as an investment: "We have real estate investments all over the country. This one just happens to be on our doorstep."

Recently, CUNA Mutual and the research park have signed a deal, several years in the making, for a land swap. The company will get 12.5 acres of prime land along Mineral Point Road, in three parcels. In exchange, CUNA Mutual will give the research park about 20 acres. That will leave the company with 53 acres, all of which it plans to develop.

Bugher says the land sale in the early 1980s gave the University Research Park "oversight rights to direct use of the property for future development." Uhlmann says the land-swap pact removes these "restrictive covenants," replacing them with "a new master plan and other zoning conditions," subject to Research Park approval.

According to Uhlmann, it's too soon to say what shape the new development will take. But he promises that CUNA Mutual will involve not just the research park but also the city of Madison and neighboring businesses and residents: "It's important to us that this is a good match with the surrounding areas."

Two consultants have been hired to plan the project, which Ulhmann says will include residential, commercial and retail components, as well as "extensive greenspace" and walking paths. Soglin has heard that the retail component will be "a shopping mall." Uhlmann foresees "a well-planned mix of retail stores that will serve the needs of the neighborhood," including restaurants and a grocery.

Ulhmann says CUNA Mutual hopes to have a completed plan "by late summer, perhaps before." But Madison Ald. Mark Clear "wouldn't be surprised" if the company "decided to hold off on the whole thing," especially the residential component. "The housing market," he notes, "is a little testy right now."

They knew him when

Brian Blanchard remembers shaking Barack Obama's hand and thinking he was "a nice guy." But they worked on different projects, and their interactions were limited. "I suspect he wouldn't even remember me."

It was 1989, and the future Dane County district attorney and Democratic presidential frontrunner were both summer interns at the Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin. That was where Obama met Michelle Robinson, his future wife, then an associate at the firm. And it was around this time that Obama, then a second-year law student, was named editor of the Harvard Law Review, the law school equivalent of winning the Heisman Trophy.

"It was clear that he was headed places," says Blanchard, who was among the throng that packed the Kohl Center last week to hear Obama, and among the voters who on Tuesday helped him win the Wisconsin primary. "He could have absolutely written his ticket in terms of income and prestige in the legal world." Thus Blanchard finds it "extremely impressive" that Obama instead opted for public service, as a community organizer and politician.

Bill Dixon agrees, saying Obama "turned down huge money at the big firms" to join the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill and Galland in 1993 because he wanted to do civil rights work. A partner at the firm's Madison office, Dixon says his occasional contacts have made him an Obama booster: "I'm 100% behind him. He's just a rare guy. We knew it when he came to us."

Attorney Chuck Barnhill, who opened the Madison office, says people attracted to Obama's public persona would like his private one, because it's the same: "He's an articulate, committed person" with a great sense of humor. "If you met him, you would invariably like him. I can't believe there's anybody who would dislike him." (Clip and save for ironic review in late October.)

But Barnhill, who has hit the links with Obama on company outings, does reveal one weakness: "He's a very mediocre golfer."

Impaired judgment

File it away under "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished."

The state Department of Natural Resources will officially designate nine city of Madison beaches as "impaired," mandating the implementation of cleanup strategies. City officials say it's because they were vigilant about monitoring and forthcoming with information.

Tommye Schneider, director of environmental health for the city and county, says the surprise designation happened because the city "shared testing results at meetings" with DNR staff. "It was not anything we were required to submit to the DNR."

Ironically, the desire to avoid the "impaired" designation for Madison lakes, and all it entails, is one of the main reasons the city and county just signed a memorandum of understanding (PDF) with the state to seek improvements in water quality. This involves forming a partnership called Yahara CLEAN (Capital Lakes Environmental Assessment and Needs).

The nine Madison beaches are: Bernie's, Brittingham, Esther Park, James Madison Park, Marshall Park, Olbrich Park, Olin Park, Spring Harbor and Vilas Park.

The city will not fight this designation. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, says spokesman George Twigg, sees it as "a recognition of issues that we've all been aware of for some time," and hopes it "will bring some new focus - and perhaps new resources - to bear on the problem."

Now the sheet mutates

From the German magazine Der Spiegel on what's happening at The Capital Times, as translated on Babelfish:

"The Capital Times is one of these numerous small regional newspapers with a large history: long it served 91 years their readers in Madison, Wisconsin, and the surrounding municipalities. Last six times per week, in an edition of not completely 20,000 copies. Now the sheet mutates to the current web service, which itself only once per week the distribution of a advertising-financed, free of charge distributed lamella carries out. On 25 April conclusion is to be with the newspaper and dare with a refurbished web page the new start."

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