David Michael Miller
Opponents of the proposed biergarten at Olbrich Park are quick to mention that one of the project's developers — Erik Kesting — is the husband of Ald. Sara Eskrich. Until now, there was zero evidence to suspect the alder had greased the skids for her husband’s business venture.
But public documents reveal more than previously reported.
In November 2015, Eskrich used her city email account to formally introduce her husband’s future business partner, Mike Bare, to the head of the Parks Division to discuss biergartens. In March, the alder shared information about the city’s interest in biergartens with her husband and Bare. In April, she met with a parks official to talk about biergarten concepts. In June, her husband’s company applied to develop a biergarten at a city park. And in September — despite the city’s request to developers that included language prohibiting alcohol sales — Kesting was recommended to run a biergarten at Olbrich park.
Eskrich insists she’s “not done anything improper,” but some are crying foul about the ongoing communication that the alder helped facilitate — and that her family could profit from.
These events were enough to convince east-side resident Beth Godfrey, who obtained the documents, that the first-of-its kind city project deserves more scrutiny.
“Until the ethical cloud hanging over this project is resolved,” says Godfrey, “continuing to move forward is inappropriate.”
When Godfrey first heard about a biergarten idea, she thought it was an intriguing concept for Olbrich Park, which has a beach and an underutilized shelter. It is being paired with a watercraft rental service from Rutabaga Paddlesports, the only other business to submit a proposal in response to the RFP (request for proposal). After hearing concerns about the biergarten from a friend, Godfrey began investigating.
Kesting — who works at Epic Systems — is one of BKM Group’s three partners, along with Bare and Travis Mueller.
On Nov. 22, 2015, Eskrich introduced Bare — “her good friend” — to parks superintendent Eric Knepp so Bare could discuss an idea for city parks. This began a correspondence between Bare and parks officials. On March 16, Eskrich also forwarded an email about a biergarten concept at Olin-Turville Park to both Bare and her husband.
Ald. David Ahrens — who supports the proposal and has part of Olbrich Park in his district — says he was unaware that Eskrich used her city email account to introduce Bare to Knepp.
“It establishes a poor record in terms of who has access to inside information. We expect things to be above board and that everybody is treated as equals,” says Ahrens. “I don’t think [the proposal] should be rejected for that reason. It seems rather minor, but it shouldn’t have happened.”
Ald. Rebecca Kemble says even the perception of impropriety can have a “corrosive effect on the council.”
"Alders serve in the public trust,” says Kemble. “We should avoid any communication or behavior that creates the perception that we are using our power and privileged access to information to financially benefit a friend or family member.”
Madison’s Parks Division put out a request to developers to propose “placemaking services” at Olbrich Park Beach House last May. It mentioned some examples including sports rentals, instructional programs for water sports, and concessions. The public was not asked for input on these services.
What the request never mentioned was a biergarten. In fact, it contained a sample agreement stating, “No alcoholic beverages may be sold at the premises.”
But on June 22, BKM Group submitted a proposal calling for a biergarten at the park. The Parks Division eventually recommended the proposal, which is now poised to get final approval and a liquor license from the Common Council on March 7.
The turn of events perplexes Ald. Marsha Rummel, whose district includes part of Olbrich Park. "How did we get from an RFP that mentions no alcoholic beverages to selecting a biergarten? That has me scratching my head," says Ald. Rummel. "It also raises the question whether they would have had more applicants if the [RFP] had been written differently."
Rummel asked Knepp about the RFP language via email. Knepp replied that the sample agreement was only meant as an example of what a vendor could expect to sign.
“In hindsight, parks staff should have considered using a ‘sample’ agreement that was not taken directly from another user agreement. That ‘sample’ agreement’ had a number of specific terms that were not meant to be requirements on any successful respondent,” wrote Knepp in a Feb. 23 email to city officials. “I don’t think this was likely to have confused any potential respondent to the point of not engaging.”
Still, Godfrey wonders what would have happened if the proposal had been more explicit. “If Great Dane, One Barrel Brewing or whoever was interested in operating a biergarten at Olbrich, the [RFP] suggests that they can’t sell alcohol,” says Godfrey. “Even if this was just sloppiness, bringing alcohol into the park is a pretty big policy change. You’d think they’d be more careful about that language.”
Records also show that Eskrich was involved in discussions with the Parks Division about establishing biergartens in some parks.
On April 7, Eskrich met with Claire Oleksiak, parks community services manager, to discuss a biergarten concept at Olin-Turville Park, part of which falls in her district. Both Oleksiak and Eskrich say a biergarten at Olbrich park was not discussed at the meeting. Eventually parks staff determined that a biergarten would not work at Olin-Turville.
When did staff start considering a biergarten at Olbrich? That is not clear. “You know how stars align sometimes?” Oleksiak says. “We did have an RFP that was going to go out for two of our underused facilities [at Olbrich and Marshall parks]. That opportunity [for a permanent biergarten] was possible at those sites.”
The BKM Group was founded in June 2016 days before the deadline to submit proposals for Olbrich. The day before the RFP for Olbrich was released, records show Oleksiak and Bare talked on the phone. Oleksiak doesn't recall what was discussed but says "it's possible" they talked about the Olbrich RFP.
Knepp says he wasn't aware Kesting was involved in the project before the formal RFP process began. Knepp says he first “heard the name Erik Kesting” when the alder’s husband was listed as the agent for the liquor license application the BKM Group submitted to the Alcohol License Review Committee.
Kesting declined to comment for this story. Bare says he and Kesting had been discussing “investment opportunities for a while.” But Eskrich and Bare say Kesting did not become a partner in the biergarten business until the Parks Division released its RFP for the Olbrich Beach House.
“I had not discussed the idea, if at all, in any detail, with either, really anyone, until right up until the RFP was released," says Bare.
BKM Group’s proposal calls for it to invest at least $62,500 by 2023 to improve the Olbrich Beach House. They hope to open in May and would pay an annual fee to the city, starting at $12,350 this year, and increasing to $30,000 by 2023.
Eskrich claims that she “very intentionally” distanced herself from her husband’s proposal at Olbrich. She has recused herself from voting on the proposal and filed a state of interest with the city in July 2016.
“It's not appropriate for alders to be voting or involved in something that has a direct financial implication for them. I've been approaching it from that perspective from the very beginning,” says Eskrich. “I have not approached any of my [council] colleagues or city staff to talk about the proposal.”
Bare says that his interest in developing a biergarten came about organically and was not facilitated by his friendship with Eskrich.
A state lobbyist, he is familiar with biergartens in other parts of the state, including in Milwaukee. “It got me thinking, why doesn’t Madison have biergartens similar to what Milwaukee has?” says Bare. “I asked the question of the parks department and shared some information that I put together with them and started developing this idea.”
Bare says concerns about his business partner’s marriage to Eskrich are “a desperate attempt to derail the proposal” by those opposed to the project.
“There have been no improprieties whatsoever, and Ald. Eskrich has declared her conflict and recused herself from consideration of the proposal,” says Bare. “To question the integrity and put at risk the reputation of alders, members of the parks commission and city staff is unfortunate and unjustified.”
Bare adds that he finds these “conspiracies” troubling and stifling to entrepreneurs who want to do business with the city.
When Isthmus tells Godfrey about these remarks, she bursts out laughing. “He should be troubled,” she says, “not by the conspiracies, but by the information that links him to potentially having special insider information about this whole RFP process.”
This article has been updated to include a comment from Claire Oleksiak about whether she discussed the Olbrich RFP with Mike Bare in a phone call the day before it was released. A quote from Bare has also been updated to show his verbatim response.