When plans for a town center on the former Delphi property were first presented, "junior box" stores were proposed for the eastern third of the 85-acre site, with some city officials and residents skewering the idea of a big box on the site.
Things have changed.
As the team leading the project began shopping the plan, centered on a new downtown for Oak Creek with high-end apartments on the west, one of the first questions often asked by prospective companies was, "who is anchoring the site?"
It became clear to developers they may need a big box store if they want to draw tenants to the downtown, where planners envision shops leading to a town square.
The collection of junior box stores, as first planned, wasn't going to be enough to draw other businesses in, Wispark President Jerry Franke said.
Enter Meijer, which is in talks to anchor the site with a 193,000-square-foot store. Meijer's name leaked out last month, and Franke confirmed negotiations Tuesday night. He said Meijer has submitted a proposed contract that is under review.
"This is by no means a done deal from either party's perspective," Franke said. "Meijer will do its due dilligence process and the city will do its review and site plan approval review process. There will be myraid meetings down the road, at which time the plan will be thoroughly vetted."
And so begins the battle to approve Meijer, which immediately attracted opposition from the community when the possibility surfaced last month.
A public meeting is set for 6 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Oak Creek Community Center in which residents can provide their input to leaders of the Drexel Town Square, to be developed at the corner of Drexel and Howell avenues.
Meijer seen as 'logical candidate'
While many residents have questioned whether Meijer is a good fit, Franke touted the company in a presentation Tuesday to the Oak Creek Common Council.
Michigan-based Meijer, which has proposed several new stores in the Milwaukee area, offers grocery and general merchandise. In addition to attracting restaurant and retail tenants, Meijer would generate tax revenue, create a large number of jobs and establish a high market-rate for the land, Franke said.
Meijer had conversations with the Drexel Town Square team off and on beginning in June 2011, Franke said.
Developers began zeroing in on Meijer after eliminating other possibilities that were either already nearby or planned to enter the Milwaukee market at other locations.
"We went through the process of elimination," said John Melaniphy of Melaniphy & Associates, a retail consultant working with the project team.
"Meijer was the logical candidate ... interested in the market, not in the market (currently), size of the store, sales and performance."
Oak Creek was also affected by its average household income, a huge factor that drives decisions like this one, Melaniphy said. The average household income in the city is $74,666, which is on the low end of comparable cities and limits what stores would be interested, according to Melaniphy.
Other Drexel Town Square components
Also at Tuesday's meeting, Franke introduced other partners working on the Drexel Town Square project.
Rick Barrett of Barrett Visionary Development is on board to develop the residential component of the plan.
Barrett is responsible for some of the most high-profile residential projects in the area. He recently completed the successful Moderne in downtown Milwaukee and was chosen to develop the Courtre, a 44-story lakefront tower planned to replace Downtown Transit Center.
Barrett is enthusiastic about the possibilities in Oak Creek. He said 500 to 600 high-end apartments are planned to be constructed in three phases on the western end of the site. About 170 units will be built in the first phase; the second and third phases will be bigger, with some rowhouses and townhomes, he said.
Along the way, about 4,000 construction jobs will be created over three to five years.
"I feel honored to be part of this team," Barrett said. "I think this project will have great success because of the people that are a part of this.
"This is where we want to put our next project. Multiple people calling me trying to get me to other cities — I want to be here."
Developing the downtown segment of the project is Blair Williams of Wired Properties. He has worked on Bayshore and other town centers, like Shorewood's Main Street.
He said he is dedicated to developing solid local retail for Oak Creek's new downtown. That, not Meijer, is going to be at the heart of this development, Williams said.
"This story is all about that portion of the site that is immediately west of the Meijer parking lot. This is about Main Street, this is about the town square, this is about the city hall, the 500 to 600 new residences that are going to be created at the west end of the site," Williams said.
"That story is completely compelling. It rises to a national-caliber story. It is rare a community the age of Oak Creek can completely redefine itself."