For nearly 60 years, the United Auto Workers Local 72 union hall was at the heart of labor movement in Kenosha County.
The sprawling cream-colored brick building, 3615 Washington Road, hosted union meetings and community fundraisers, political hopefuls and the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Commemorative Dinner.
The building, the largest union hall in Wisconsin when it opened in 1961, was a source of pride for the city’s autoworkers.
The closure of the Chrysler Engine Plant in 2010 ended a history of auto production in Kenosha that stretched back to 1902. Local 72 became a union largely made up of retirees.
Those retirees are still active — union meetings still draw up to 250 people according to a union official.
The union had been leasing the hall’s meeting rooms for events like concerts, weddings and family parties, but the work required to run the hall as a banquet facility was difficult to sustain for the volunteer-led organization.
This month, the union sold the union hall and the 11-acre property to Bear Development.
It was a sad decision, said Local 72 President Peggy Applegate-Peplinski.
“It’s like losing a member of the family,” she said. “And I know a lot of people feel the same way.”
S.R. Mills, president of Bear Development, said the company has no firm plans for redevelopment of the property at this time.
But he said the company is mindful of the property’s history and the emotional ties to the hall for many people in the community.
“That’s part of the reason we are trying to be very thoughtful on what the future use will be, paying homage to the UAW and its history in Kenosha while also putting the property to its highest and best use,” Mills said.
He said the company is working now on a long-term plan for the property. In the short term, the city approved Bear’s request to take over the liquor license for the property, opening up the possibility the hall could be used for events.
Mills said the company wants to make sure when it does put a plan forward for the property that it is one that makes sense for the property.
“We want to put all the puzzle pieces together to make sure that it’s a cohesive development,” he said.
Bear already owns several properties that neighbor the UAW land, including Bradford Plaza, two adjacent apartment complexes and a nearby retail center.
No preconceived plans
Mayor John Antaramian said Monday that he does not have any preconceived ideas for the property, although there is a small portion of the property that is south of 40th Street that is designated for residential development in the city’s comprehensive plan.
“At this point in time, the city will be open to whatever they come forward with,” Antaramian said.
Ald. Anthony Kennedy, who represents the district, said he welcomed Bear’s investment in the neighborhood and said the company has a good track record in improving and maintaining the properties it owns in his district.
But he said he hopes the company preserves the union hall building as part of their future development plans.
“I hope the building gets preserved. It is an amazing piece of Kenosha history, and I hope we can keep the building there,” Kennedy said.
He said he has had discussions with Mills about the building, saying he felt the hall’s large banquet room, commercial kitchens and stage would make it a good venue for community theater or other arts programs, what Kennedy called the creative economy.
“I think if you really think outside the box we could do some things there that are amazing and innovative,” Kennedy said. “I would definitely vote no to raze it, if it ever got to that point, only because of the emotional impact it has on the community.”
When a group of Special Olympics athletes on a Kenosha-based women’s basketball team were competing recently for a chance to play in the state finals, they decided that win or lose, they were not going to go to state.