An Interview with James Schmitt, Mayor of Green Bay, WI
James J. Schmitt was elected the 41st Mayor of Green Bay in April 2003; he was re-elected in April 2007 and again in April 2011. He is presently the second-longest-serving mayor in Green Bay’s history. Mayor Schmitt serves on the Advisory Board of both the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. In the private sector, Schmitt was president of Famis Manufacturing Inc. and received the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year award. He is a graduate of St. Norbert College and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The Politic: Why did you initially choose to pursue elected office?
I have always enjoyed leadership roles. I am very comfortable making decisions, and I am a bit of a risk taker. I have vision, and I’ve started a business.
There are two types of mayors. There are either strong mayors or weak mayors. I would not have pursued this had it been a weak mayor position. Some cities have a weak mayor where he or she will run the council meetings and be the face of the city and someone who can promote the city and the events. I do that, but I enjoy the business side of this job. I enjoy the investment and redevelopment side. When I looked at entering public sector work, I needed to find something that aligned to Jim Schmitt, with my skills, who I am, and what I wanted to do. There are a lot of jobs in government – mayor is just one of them. To have my DNA and to have an opportunity with the city of Green Bay to be the chief executive officer and also cheerleader for Green Bay – it was a perfect match. I love waking and making Green Bay the best city it can be.
The Politic: Could you discuss the role of the mayor of Green Bay and the impact that you – as mayor – can have that no other elected official can?
The mayor is very well known in Green Bay. He is the face of Green Bay. I go to over 500 events a year, everything from a 100th birthday party to the Eagle Scouts. My job is to speak for the community and to try to influence things for the betterment of Green Bay. Here, we really try to do all that we can to lift the lives of the people who call Green Bay home. That is our motto around here, and we work towards that. I think the media and a lot of people have great respect for the position of mayor in the city of Green Bay.
The Politic: When you walked into your office this morning, what were two or three of the biggest issues on your desk?
The budget isn’t something that we just pick up in October and approve in November. We meet on the budget every month. We look at people who are deviating from the budget, and we plan how to get back on track.
We also have an opportunity in the city of Green Bay with 15 acres of property that is really going to set the direction for this community for the next 40 years, and we are working on that.
I suppose my biggest projects for today are the redevelopment opportunity for the city, the budget, and talking to you.
The Politic: I’m flattered. Could you discuss some of the challenges – or perhaps successes – that your office faces in attracting investment and job opportunities to Green Bay, especially as a smaller city?
You say smaller city, but we believe in City Hall that if [big cities] can do it, then so can we. When we look at bigger cities – Nashville or even Chicago – we aren’t going to have the Sears Tower, but we can attract talent here. We can compete with other cities when it comes to amenities, education, and career opportunities. We have some billion-dollar companies in our downtown and in our community. We pay some very competitive wages. We can compete and we are confident that we can compete. Our job is to set the table so we can retain and attract talent. Other mayors are doing that. I get that, and it’s competitive. I love the other mayors; we work together and we have each other’s backs, but at the end of the day, we need to attract talent to this community. Green Bay is just a little over 100,000 people; we are the third largest city in the state. I know people look at us as a small city, but we really don’t think we are. We need to step it up a notch and compete with Minneapolis and some of these other cities, and we are confident we can do that.
The Politic: Green Bay’s unemployment rate is roughly 5 percent, which hovers just slightly below the national average of roughly 6 percent. Could you discuss how the recession directly impacted Green Bay and how your city has recovered since 2008?
We have 30 bigger businesses. I know them by name. I meet with them collectively once a year and once on their turf. I never felt like people were in jeopardy. We didn’t experience some of the lows that other communities did in real estate. On the other hand, we never enjoyed the real highs in real estate either. We had some houses with more debt than equity, but not to the degree that other communities experienced. We had all the bankers in our office talking about how we’d work through the crisis together, but Green Bay is a pretty conservative community and we didn’t lose any major businesses. Green Bay came out as having one of the highest credit ratings per individual. The American people lost confidence in the country; we did not want them to lose it in Green Bay and I think we weathered that okay.
The Politic: Let’s pivot from the recession from a bit of a more upbeat topic: The Packers.
Now we’re talking!
The Politic: Green Bay is by far the smallest metropolitan area to host a major professional sports franchise. Can you discuss what the Packers mean to the city of Green Bay?
It gets back to the community confidence we have. I think this is one of the best facilities in the NFL. Dallas … okay I’ll give you that; Jerry Jones has a great stadium. We take a lot of pride in the Packers. We talk about community-owned, and we believe in that. They’ve been a good identity for the community. If I named a city, you would think of something. So I think when people think of Green Bay, they think good things. They believe it’s entrepreneurial.
It’s a team that is a winning team. We can attract talent like Reggie White and Aaron Rodgers. It is tough to get guys like these. When they get here, they love it here. You see them at the children’s museum with their kids, and you run into them at church services. They are very happy here and they are very community-minded. They are good role models for our kids in this community. These guys are more than football players; they are very mindful of the community, and they have their charities. Greg Jennings was also great.
From an economic standpoint, I can give you the numbers: $10 million a weekend. And that’s great too, but at the end of the day, it’s more than just the dollars and cents, it’s really the face of our community. We are very blessed to have an NFL team here in Green Bay.
The Politic: The Packers truly are the only major sports franchise to be publically owned. Could you talk about the effect of public ownership on the fans’ relationship with the team? Also, do you attribute public ownership to the reason why The Packers have stayed in a small market?
There is a pretty storied history on that. These shareholders, which I am one of – most people are – made a donation to help this organization. We all have our certificates framed. The Packers annual shareholder meeting is awesome! Families come in. The Packers really appreciate the fan base. The face of The Packers is the fans. It’s not Jerry Jones or Bob Kraft; it’s the fans. We love that.
The Politic: What is your vision for Green Bay in 2020?
We want to retain and attract talent. I happen to be the father of three who are either in college or college graduates, and I want them to choose Green Bay. I want Green Bay to be on people’s shortlists of where they choose to live. We understand as an administration what attracts people, whether it is active retirees or people 27-33 years old. I think we are doing that right. We have 153 events in our downtown. We have luxury apartments and plans for sustainability, and plans that address the homeless issue.
I love all the cities in Wisconsin, but I want [Green Bay] to be something special, and when you look at what we’re moving towards, people will say, “Green Bay is more than The Packers. They have an NFL team and that is very cool, but they also have great opportunities and this is where I choose to live.” Businesses may say this is where we want to be. Buildings are great but you have to have the people in there. If we can have that environment that people are attracted to, then we’re in pretty good shape. We’re getting there, and I think in 2020 we’ll be there. I am very confident that we can be on the list of talent in the United States.
The Politic: Let’s wrap things up with the lightning round. First, why is Green Bay’s bay green?
I don’t know…is it because of the algae?
The Politic: “Toilet paper capital of the world” – is that actually a badge of pride for Green Bay?
The Politic: There is a town called Green Bay a few miles from your city of Green Bay. Does that ever get confusing for you?
Right now, no, it has not been an issue.
The Politic: Have you ever tried a Lambeau leap?
Oh yes! We’ll do that when you come visit Green Bay.
The Politic: When you’re walking down the street, are you wearing an Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre jersey?
The Politic: If I’m visiting Green Bay for the first time and I only have one afternoon, what is the iconic Green Bay experience?
The Bay Beach Amusement Park – 25 cent rides. You have to go there and go downtown to the city deck to experience one of our musical events. Visit the children’s museum and many of the unique restaurants we have. You should also enjoy a little historical tour with the churches in some of the neighborhoods that are just awesome in Green Bay. It’s truly a special city.