The Mess in Franklin: Moving Ahead Without Strauss Brands?

Opponents of what was often referred to as the Strauss Brands “expansion” in Franklin will be relieved to learn that the company has withdrawn from a proposed plan to build a 152,000 sq. ft. slaughterhouse and meat-packing facility on thirty acres near residential lots and homes under construction.

In 2019, the company withdrew its plan to build a slaughterhouse at the Century City Business Park in Milwaukee when Ald. Khalif Rainey flipped from supporter to opponent based on protests by local residents and Slaughter Free Milwaukee.

Strauss Brands currently operates out of a Franklin business park where its 41,000 sq. ft. plant processes veal and lamb. Though frequently described as a homegrown Milwaukee business, owned and operated by the Strauss Family, in 2019 majority shares in Strauss Brands were purchased by Texas-based Insight Equity. Randy Strauss is the current CEO.

Now the company says it will sell the 30 acres in a cobbled-together industrial park it bought after intensive lobbying by Franklin city government, which created a TIF (Tax Incremental Financing for industrial development) on a site that was originally farmland and wetland. The city’s comprehensive plan called for the area to be zoned business, but not heavy industrial – like a slaughterhouse.

Franklin residents were outraged last October when the Common Council held a surprise vote reversing an earlier decision not to grant Strauss a special use permit to build its plant. Alder Shari Hanneman changed her initial no vote to yes, saying she had been persuaded by the “theatrics” of residents to vote no. Franklin Mayor Steve Olson, who remains a staunch proponent of the project, cast a tiebreaker vote.

Franklin Community Advocates, a grassroots group, filed suit last November seeking to stop the project. Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge Hannah Dugan hasn’t yet issued a ruling, but she ordered the Franklin common council and the mayor to hold a new hearing on the matter “to satisfy minimal due process requirements.” That hearing was held on Tuesday, March 1 despite the fact that there was no longer an applicant.

And there were plenty of “theatrics” on display at the de novo public hearing before the Franklin Common Council and the mayor. You might also say that residents were outraged and appalled by the city’s plan to build the meatpacking facility, where as many as 500 cows per day would be killed and butchered, in their backyards.

The location, near the intersection of Loomis and Ryan Roads, is close to Ryan Meadows, a subdivision of $500-$600,000 homes currently under construction and lots where more new homes are planned. One purchaser of a home at Ryan Meadows who attended Tuesday night’s meeting said he was never informed of the plan to build a slaughterhouse in his backyard. Residents who moved to Franklin for its “quality of life” (the city’s motto is “Celebrating Quality of Life”) said repeatedly that the plan defied “common sense” and logic, referring to the problems generated by the killing of so many animals in proximity to a residential neighborhood.

One speaker announced that Franklin mayor Steve Olson’s new nickname should be “Vladimir Putin Olson” and two people, Marcelino Rivera III and Deborah Davis, declared they are running for seats on the Franklin Common Council on April 5 specifically because of lack of transparency and mismanagement by city government.

Rivera is the original founder of Franklin Community Advocates, which merged with three other community groups to form a 501(c)3 that has raised over $75,000 to mount a legal challenge of the city’s actions. “My eyes were opened when I looked at the issues around one of the city’s most contested developments,” Rivera said in explaining his run. “The existing establishment and sitting incumbents voted in favor of the Strauss expansion regardless of citizen’s wishes.”

His opponent, incumbent alderman Mike Barber, is “trying to label me as anti-development,” Rivera said. But the proposed slaughterhouse is “something that’s never been done at this scale” next door to a residential area and, “on top of that, over a watershed.” Franklin is located on the Root River watershed. “It just doesn’t make sense. There are safety issues. There haven’t been any environmental studies to make sure it’s safe, and the city has just disregarded that.”

Jason Dropik, Head of School for the Milwaukee Indian Community School, which is located on 200 acres of oak savannah, prairie, and wetland about a mile from the proposed site, said that when the Strauss Brands project was made public, “it was news to us.” Neither the mayor nor Strauss Brands “reached out” to the school, Dropik said.

Dropik also said the Indian Community School was required to do an extensive traffic study before construction could begin on its building, designed by architect Antoine Predock. The Indian Community School transports most of its 361, intertribal students to the campus from Milwaukee by propane bus, Dropik said.

Strauss, which would have trucked in 500 head or more cattle per day, was not required to do a traffic study, Dropik said.

The Indian Community School ultimately decided it could not support the Strauss project. “All of creation is sacred and important,” Dropik said, echoing the thoughts of two members of the Jain religion and a Mr. Shah from Brookfield who attended the March 1 hearing to object to the slaughterhouse for the same reason some Milwaukee residents did – because they believe it is inhumane to slaughter animals for food.

When Strauss withdrew from Century City in 2019, Randy Strauss said, “We honor and respect the opinions of the community and don’t want to make our home in a place where our presence would not be seen as a benefit. Therefore, we are no longer pursuing relocation to Century City.”

The Strauss family cannot have been happy about the firestorm their plan stirred up in Franklin. Strauss brands itself as a future-forward company with “ethically raised meats” from independent family farms. The Strauss website also describes the company’s meats as “natural” which, it says, besides being “better for the animals and the earth, [is] also the best way to bring out the natural flavors of meat. It’s a win-win-win any way you slice it.”

In November 2020, USDA issued a report on its inspection of Strauss’s existing Franklin plant, which found “egregious violation of humane handling requirements” established by federal law. Lambs were improperly stunned, remaining conscious and screaming while being hung by the legs to be killed. The lambs are supposed to be slaughtered using more humane, halal methods, which were not properly followed.

And also in 2020, the company fired 30 people who approached management about lack of covid protocols after workers began getting sick. The workers had been Strauss employees from 12 to 20 years. Voces de la Frontera filed an OSHA complaint on behalf of the fired workers, who won a settlement.

FCA’s Dave Sorensen said of Insight Equity, Strauss’s new owners, “Private equity firms are established to make money for their investors. I’m guessing not one of them could find Franklin on a map.”

On March 1, the Franklin Common Council held another vote on what was formerly the Strauss Brands Special Use Permit, this time on an SUP without an applicant, which is a far cry from business as usual in most municipalities. The council voted 3-3 to grant the SUP. Mayor Olson again acted as tiebreaker in favor. 

And while that move is seen as inexplicable by many Franklin residents, others, including those engaged with FCA, have begun to learn the hard way how their city government operates, and the motives behind policies that give every appearance of defying common sense.

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