This story was originally published in the September 7th edition of The Smart Reader magazine.
Born and raised in Kenosha, John Antaramian initially served as our mayor from 1992 to 2008, when he decided to not seek re-election and pursue other interests. In 2016, Antaramian returned to the mayor’s office. He recently sat down with Smart Reader for this exclusive interview.
You have been the mayor total for 18 years now, what is the biggest difference from being the mayor in 1992 compared to 2019?
“The biggest difference is probably the economics of the situation. In 1992, the economics in the area were still very difficult. Today, we see increased growth, not just in the city of Kenosha, but around the area as well.”
What made you come out of retirement in 2016 and run again?
“There are a lot of things that I believed in that I’d like to see happen. Every mayor has different agendas and different focuses. When the opportunity to come back arose, there were areas that I thought that I would like to see us move forward on.”
Tell us about your typical workday.
“A typical day for me starts around 8:30 a.m. with staff meetings and then moves onto different appointments with people who come in want to talk to me. In the evenings, I usually have various functions to attend. I try to be home by 8:30-9:00 every night.”
Do you have a special place you can go and take a little break from being the mayor?
“For me, the breaks I usually take are going for walks, especially down by the lakefront.”
I have to ask about your recent health scare. The public is asking for a health update.
“I’m doing fine. The doctor gave me a clean bill of health. My restrictions are simple; I need to watch my diet and exercise, which I am doing. I have lost some weight, I have a little more to go.”
Are there other cities that have inspired you or sparked ideas that you brought back to Kenosha?
“Whenever I go out and visit places I look to see what others are doing differently than what we do, and then borrowing those ideas and see if they fit in with what we want to do.”
Are there any previous mayors of the city that you have looked for inspiration?
“The one mayor that I look at as one of the most important is Gene Hammond. Probably most your readers won’t remember Gene Hammond. He was mayor in the late 50’s early 60’s and he was someone who actually created the mayoral form of government in Kenosha. He was a remarkable person, and, fortunately for me, I got to know him a little bit during my first term before he passed away (in 2000).”
Are you going to run again for mayor in 2020?
Kenosha’s has changed quite a bit over the past 50 years. Can you tell us about one aspect of old Kenosha that you miss?
“I think the things I miss the most from my past involve memories with my family – growing up here with picnics at Petrifying Springs and things like that. I miss the people that are no longer here – that’s the old Kenosha that I miss the most.”
Can you fill us in on any of current or future plans for the uptown area?
“The uptown neighborhood is next on the list of places where we are going to be spending a great deal of time. Downtown has been the area where we have been trying to finish up projects. We have the Chrysler site that is being worked on which will play into our plans next year as part of the uptown revival. Starting next year, we will be spending a great deal of time on the uptown area. I don’t want to make it seem like we haven’t been doing anything with uptown, the city has been purchasing property and doing other numerous things. It’s just that these actions aren’t as visible to the public – expect to see some good changes in the next few years.”
In your opinion, what have been your biggest accomplishments as mayor so far?
“From my perspective, the biggest accomplishment has been the cleanups of all the brownfield sites. That is something that many communities do not do, and because they haven’t done it, they pay the price with the deterioration of neighborhoods and nothing new coming to the community. We have to make sure these abandoned industries do not deteriorate the neighborhood. We look at them for development – recreational, commercial, housing, industrial – whatever it is, we need to spark development at those sites. They need to be clean to positively impact the surrounding neighborhood.”
Can you give us an update on what’s going on with the Chrysler site?
“At the moment, the majority of the site has been cleaned, the gravel is being removed, some the city is using, and some has been sold. That should be gone by the end of the year. A retention basin needs to be built which will take care of the Chrysler site, the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the Forest Park, Wilson area. This basin will deal with overflow flooding when a big storm hits. We still have one section that needs to be cleaned, which is twenty feet underground. For that, we are injecting enzymes, or bugs, into the ground, which eat the oil. That takes some time. After the site is cleared, we will have grass growing and we can work with the consultant on exactly what type of growth we want to encourage on the site – we would like to see some kind of technological industry – a research park, a center of excellence.”
What do you think about public transportation, should the Metro extend their line to Milwaukee?
“I have had that fight already. Do I think it will happen in the future? Yes. When? I don’t know. We need to have a totally different mindset in Madison, I think someday it will happen.”
Everyone is complaining about the roads, I am sure you have heard your share of it.
“I think a part of the problem with dealing with the roads is that once you fall behind, you can never catch up. The state and the federal government completely ignore the infrastructure of our communities; every community you go to is in trouble, none of them have good roads. The real problem isn’t just the roads, the underlying issue is the overall infrastructure of the communities. For example, our governor was recently in Kenosha to address the lead pipes – Kenosha has one of the few lead pipe programs in the state – we created it and moved on it as soon as the state gave us the opportunity. We are removing the lead pipes from the home to the curb, which is usually the responsibility of the homeowner; we are picking up half of that cost. These underground issues are important. Another related issue is flooding. I know many people don’t believe in climate change, but the weather patterns in our area have changed dramatically. The ‘100-year-storm’ now happens every 10 years. So, we have to have retention ponds and other ways to control the water. Many of our pipes are not built to handle these ‘100-year-storms.’ We are looking into stormwater management and ways we can help prevent homes from being flooded.
“If you notice the lakefront, Lake Michigan is at its highest level it has ever been. The core of engineers and the state have bailed on their responsibility to provide relief and protection for the shoreline. So the only option is to have the cities and municipalities deal with it directly. We have spent about $12M on shoreline repair, and we have more to deal with.
“When you put all of this together, and then put the road repairs on top of that – there are so many things that need to happen. To get people to visualize the magnitude of our costs: the recent 22nd Avenue project cost $48M alone. That’s a lot of money we need to come up with – that’s why we have to do it in pieces. There is so much more on the table we need to address. You don’t want to see us repair a road, and then tear it up because we have to replace the storm drains. I know we have had some brutal potholes in town this summer – that goes back to the winter we just had. These extreme temperatures cause these cracks and pot holes – so with more harsh winters, we will have even more challenges in our roads.”
What is on your bucket list for the city of Kenosha?
“Jeez, where do I start? From my perspective right now is seeing the downtown plan being implemented and then the uptown revival, and when I say uptown, I am including the Chrysler site.
“One of the big things that I wish I could fix is losing our younger generation in Kenosha – we lose so many of our kids who move elsewhere. We are lacking in many opportunities for young people to live up to their potential. To me, the need for new tech companies, quality of life, research and development companies, things like that which will provide our educated youth with the chance to make livable wages right here in town. Those are things we need to get involved in right away.”
What do you love most about downtown Kenosha?
“The walkability and the great restaurants. I see most of the businesses doing very well and its great to see.”
What is the timeline for the planned downtown parking structure?
“It’s still going to happen. I chuckle when I think about that. Twenty-five, thirty years ago, the businesses downtown would have loved to have a parking problem. It’s one of those problems that are good to have because it means that people are coming downtown, but it is a problem we are addressing.”
What advantages does our streetcar provide Kenosha?
“Well, above all, I think it is one of those things that will make people stop and look. It has been quite a draw. I am a big fan of rail – I see the streetcar as a positive for Kenosha, I fought to extend the Metra to Milwaukee. A perfect example was when the Tall Ships came to town, the streetcars were packed.”
Kenosha seems to be behind the times with public recycling, are there any plans to provide more recycling options?
“That is already in development. Kathy Marks has been working with schools and other groups to implement more recycling at many of our functions, festivals and other events.”
Do you think being neighbors with FoxConn will be a positive or negative impact on Kenosha?
“I think FoxConn will be a positive for Kenosha because we have no money tied up in the project. If they create, for example, 5,000 jobs for the area, it’s a positive for us – it provides good paying jobs (from what we have been told). It’s a win-win for Kenosha. We want to see Racine be successful, the stronger they are, the stronger we are. If you have cities around you that are weak, they will impact you in the end. From our perspective, we want to see it work, I am anticipating 3,000-5,000 jobs, and that would be great to see in the area.”
There seems to be more and more empty buildings across town, the most recent being the Piggly Wiggly on 80th Street. How do you see these buildings being filled?
“I think we will see reuse of those buildings over time. I think the strength of the market in this area is going to enable those sites to be redeveloped. It’s just a matter of timing. Many people don’t realize that these buildings are owned by someone other than the store itself and they are leased. In many cases, the owner is still being paid whether a business is open or not. For example, the owner of the building that housed Wal-Mart on 52nd Street was still getting paid for the last decade or so that it has been empty. The lease recently ran out, and now we see a U-Haul in the building.”
We see so much of Kenosha moving west. How can we get more businesses interested in operating more in the city (i.e. south of Washington, north of 80th, east of 39th)?
“I think we are seeing that already starting to happen. Smaller industries will be coming into the city. All the big manufacturers are going to be near the Interstate, that’s where they want to be. But to entice these smaller tech companies to come in to places like the Chrysler site for example is something we are actively working on. The types of commercial and industry in the area which you are talking about are going to typically be relatively small just because that’s where the market has gone.”
The Tall Ships event this summer was a huge success, do you see them returning sooner rather than later?
“I would like to see that. I cannot guarantee anything yet, but I are hoping that they will come back to Kenosha in three years when they return to the area.” We have quite a few famous Kenoshans. Do you have a personal favorite? “My personal favorite would have to be Al Molinaro – he was quite the character – he came back to Kenosha on occasion and he would always visit us. He was truly a wonderful person, very nice and kind.”
Kenosha has about 74 parks; do you have a personal favorite?
“Roosevelt – because that’s where I grew up.”
If you walked into a bar and they are doing karaoke, what song would you pick to sing?
“Don’t even bother asking me that.”
What is your favorite TV show of all time?
“I would have to say ‘M*A*S*H.’”
What is your favorite sports team?
What do you like to do in your spare time?
What are you currently reading?
“In the process of finishing the ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Do you have an amusing story you can share with us from the mayor’s office?
“The funniest story that happened while in office deals with a stop sign when I first got elected. I had someone call me, they were very upset and worried that someone was going to get killed at a nearby intersection and wanted to see a new stop sign. According to this person, there had to be a stop sign – so I gave them their stop sign. Now, shortly after, I get a call from this same person, they are angry once again. They are now complaining that nobody is stopping for the stop sign, they want to see a police officer on this intersection. So, I asked a police officer to watch the intersection. About three weeks later, I get yet another call from this person, this time with a much different tone. This time, their voice was soft and calm. They told me that I could remove the police officer from the corner, and they also told me I could remove the stop sign. I was very surprised and asked why. The person said that, ‘Well, now all my neighbors aren’t talking to me after getting ticketed.’”
Interview conducted by Donald Stancato.
Edited by Jason Hedman.
All photos, including cover photo by Cassidy Gillespie-Dipinto.