Alderman has broad then-and-now view of West Allis
Sengstock looks back on city's changes in his 41 years on Common Council
West Allis — When James Sengstock was elected to the West Allis Common Council for the first time, current Mayor Dan Devine was five months old.
That was in 1972 and Sengstock at 27 was the youngest person in West Allis history to be elected to the council. Now, as he steps down from the council this month, the veteran alderman can look back on more than 41 years of service, 12 of them as council president.
Sengstock initially anticipated only serving a couple of terms, "but I just kept going on and on and on," he said.
As it turned out, he has stayed on board long enough to see West Allis change drastically over the years.
He remembers a West Allis that was a robust and muscular manufacturing town. With hundreds of people working nearby at Allis-Chalmers and other companies, the West Allis downtown also was a busy place.
"We had three dime stores, Sears and Penneys and boutiques," Sengstock said. "It was a bustling business district on Greenfield Avenue from 70th toward 76th."
Sengstock saw that industrial strength quickly whither, though, as manufacturing in West Allis and all over the Midwest plunged into decline. Allis-Chalmers, which hung on into the 1980s, was thought to be the biggest employer in West Allis, but it was hardly alone.
"We had 13 or 14 very successful factories," when he was first elected, Sengstock remembered. "Now, I think there are two."
Not only did people lose their factory jobs, but the city faced the collateral damage caused by the factories closing, Sengstock said.
Hardworking people thrown out of work were suddenly unable to pay their mortgages. Deteriorating houses stood vacant. Bars and other businesses formerly frequented by factory workers suffered much the same fate or their upstairs spaces went vacant because building owners couldn't afford to keep them current, Sengstock said.
Greenfield Avenue east of downtown was one of those areas that fell prey to economic decline.
"It was a blighted area of old, old buildings that maybe served a purpose when the factories were going," Sengstock said.
All that also slammed into city finances, making it hard to maintain city services, he said.
"This city suffered," he said.
West Allis needed redevelopment and that's what it got, using a variety of tools to slowly climb out of the post-industrial hole.
With the help of federal dollars, the city cleaned up sites contaminated by the old factories.
The city also established special taxing areas called tax incremental finance districts to encourage redevelopment. Successes included as the Quad/Graphics plant, multifamily housing and other development near the West Allis Farmers Market, and redevelopment deals so complex that other cities have yet to catch on to how they work.
The huge former Allis-Chalmers grounds became the West Allis Towne Center, packed with stores, and the Summit Place office complex.
Through it all, Sengstock has been chairman at one time or another of all the the city's major committees involved in that redevelopment. But Sengstock paid tribute to Development Director John Stibal and his staff for making it possible for the city to find a way out of those dark days.
Stibal and his staff took a positive approach to getting the redevelopment done, Sengstock said, "and we all were very energized and committed to that."
Stibal and the council focused first on the city's east side, hardest hit by factory closings and the the part of the city that was more eligible for grant money, Sengstock said.
Work in progress
While the city has seen a lot of success, it's not quite the way it once was.
City government has recovered its loss of real estate taxes, Sengstock said, "but never recovered the loss of those jobs.... I don't know if we'll ever fully recover."
Although there has been progress, Sengstock still doesn't like to see the remaining decay on the east side of the city. Once it was all owner-occupied but now landlords live elsewhere and don't give their absentee properties the same care, he said.
"It saddens me," he said.
The business district — generally defined as the storefront segment of Greenfield Avenue — has managed to struggle back.
"There are not a lot of vacancies," Sengstock said, attributing much of that success to the Business Improvement District organization of business and property owners.
"I think for the most part we have recovered (overall)," Sengstock said.
Other communities are taking notice, Devine said.
"We've been asked to do presentations on how West Allis has retooled and re-presented itself," Devine said.
Sengstock has played a major role through it all, he added.
"Alderman Sengstock has been a strong partner and strong supporter of these redevelopment efforts," Devine said. "He has obviously seen the city through its roughest times."
But now it's time to step down so he can devote more time to his family and to his law practice at 102nd Street and National Avenue in West Allis.
His decision was bittersweet.
"I have a love affair with the city of West Allis," said the West Allis native.
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