Monday, November 19, 2007

How Wisconsin Sells Itself Short

A French economic development organization finds that metro Cleveland has more wealth (per capita income) than Portland, and is right behind Paris.

Say what?

It's more proof that Midwesterners need to better tell their story. Need to promote economic and PR strategies that define and sell the region.

And focus on cities.

Urbanity.

In other words, to build and invest, and line up resources and oomph, for lack of a better concept, where the people already are - - not pushing water parks and shopping malls and more chain store big boxes on to farm fields, then holding a news conference in the parking lot to celebrate such energy-eating and ultimately self-defeating varieties of economic 'development.'

The Brookings Institution is promoting assertively a Midwestern metro strategy, and believes strongly in urban, central city development, as seen in this recent Brookings' presentation about Seattle.

To a limited degree, some Milwaukee-area interests, like the public-private M-7 partnership, are getting on board.

But many high-visibility, on-the-ground development initiatives, both public and private, are still too focused in Wisconsin away from its major urban area, Milwaukee.

These strategies, if you can call them that, fail to take full advantage of Milwaukee's built environment, its infrastructure and efficiently-arrayed assets - - its density, access to fresh water, a port, an international airport, the AMTRAK link to Chicago, an expanding Riverwalk, and solid, integrated manufacturing, university, cultural and health-care/hospital complexes.

Put another way, in our region, movers and shakers want to dissociate urban from metro, or city from metro, lavishing attention on the sub and exurban.

Want an example? Take water.

The debate over water policy and value in southeastern Wisconsin is misdirected.

Planners in our part of the state want to divert water away from cities and employment opportunities in the Lake Michigan basin and into sprawling, newer suburbs and subdivisions.

A related example?

The state is facilitating that movement of jobs, wealth and water conservation away from cities by blowing billions on new highways instead of strategically reducing that spending and offering choices.

The state should be focusing on transit upgrades to better link workers to jobs and to circulate people and their commerce through the city and region - - with urban investment as the intentional, deliberate underpinning.

The Milwaukee downtown is still not served by modern rail, leaving it in the transportation dark ages and limiting the city's economic vitality, and its future.

The business community, in the main, has never stepped forward and exerted leadership on the downtown rail issue, first because it prefers the suburban-first model, and secondly because it is cowed by right-wing talk radio.

Look at Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, as an example, since Milwaukee County operates the transit system in our county.

He is a Republican, as are most of the city and region's business leaders, yet they make no demand on him to better promote the city by advancing its transit system with a rail option.

So Milwaukee County has an anti-rail, thus effectively anti-urban leader, while the business community as a whole looks the other way.

The result: Reduced service. Higher fares. A failing system. And derailed trolley or the guided electric buses ("The Connector") that could help the city, and along with it, the suburbs, region and state.

What transportation big picture does Walker support?

The regional freeway plan.

That scheme requires billions of dollars to 'improve' and widen freeways as far away as Walworth County.

That's your Milwaukee County transportation and economic development plan: moving the economy to rural Walworth, or exurban Waukesha County to the Jefferson County line.

It will also take tens of millions of dollars of taxable land off the Milwaukee City, schools and County tax base, including eleven new miles of lanes and ramps on valuable real estate in the downtown for the $810 million Marquette Interchange reconstruction.

Without a dime for any transit upgrade in the area.

And the freeway plan will soon eat up a fresh $1.9 billion for added north-south lanes on I-94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois state line, while a parallel proposal for commuter rail in the same corridor is dead in the water from lack of money (though $91 million is available), but mainly through a failure of political will.

The plan to expand UW-Milwaukee at the Milwaukee County grounds will be good for the region - - but by taking the engineering and research campus expansion to Wauwatosa, and declining sites in the Menomonee Valley or Park East corridor downtown, the powers that be are removing all that activity from the city.

Without the light rail lines that were killed years ago that could have provided modern transit links to the nearby Zoo, the community is again facing up to development and transportation gaps that are consequences of political and transit failings.

What will UW-M offer to researchers coming in from Chicago or the airport for conferences: Shuttle buses?

Will it force students to drive into Tosa from their East side apartments, having failed to step up and support the Connector line that could have offered a pleasant, nifty connection to this proposed new suburban campus?

It's a stunning irony that Scott Walker will benefit politically from the UW-M expansion onto the County Grounds he manages, yet has resisted direct appeals to support rail or Connector lines from Michael Cudahy - - the generous entrepreneur who is financing the purchase of the county grounds' acreage for the UW-M research campus.

Cudahy has been a visionary on transit and on downtown development in the public interest - - he took the Pabst Theater off the taxpayers' backs and built Pier Wisconsin on the lakefront - - but hasn't found his understanding for transit matched by his peers, or embraced by the political establishment.

A pity.

Milwaukee could rise on the international wealth and influence lists if the public and private sectors here and statewide decided that Milwaukee was the logical economic development focus for the state.

Without that commitment, without that belief, Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area will stay somewhere modestly in the middle of the pack, having turned its back on its diverse population, and on the value of cities, embracing caution and inertia over vision and initiative.

10 comments:

Dave said...

The UW-Tosa plan must be stopped.. The Park East would be such a better location that would be beneficial for both UWM and the city,.

Anonymous said...

Right on Jim. I wish you were still working in City government.

Anonymous said...

No, the city doesn't need to make Park East land tax-exempt (as is any UWM land).

The Tosa plan is beneficial to UWM and to the city. What both need is to grow R&D, and that requires the synergy of putting the "R"/research people with the "D"/development people at the County grounds.

The decision to move so many hospitals from downtown Milwaukee to Tosa was a wrong decision, decades ago, but UWM can't undo it.

It can go where the county moved the hospitals and make new businesses happen. And that will benefit the city -- as it has benefited Madison, the Twin Cities, and many more.

UWM's other satellite campus/school is planned for downtown, the public health school (if the Madison folks don't take back their promises yet again, and there are rumblings. . . .) -- and that will do much for the city as well. Focus on all of UWM's plans, not just one part.

PurpleAvenger said...

Another place that was once looked at for the engineering school (and then dropped for who knows what reason) is the Tower Site up near 35th & Capitol. Think of the amazing revitalization - and jobs - that could have been provided to a struggling, predominantly minority, neighborhood, to more directly benefit from the city's development.

James Rowen said...

Amen to the PurpleAvenger comment.

UWM's focus on the County Grounds reminds me of the long-ago fight in Madison when the technical college abandoned downtown Madison for open space at the edge of the airport.

Students downtown were incovenienced. All the bus routes which converged there could not be redirected to the edge of the city at the airport.

Downtown businesses took a hit, and sprawl was accelerated - - all by an arm of the government.

The tech board had a 'campus' vision that included big parking lots and low buildings, much like an office park.

It's not a 100% perfect comparison, but it's close. In the end, it was a loss for downtown Madison.

For downtown Milwaukee, or for its central city, it's a lost opportunity.

JPK said...

Even as an urbanist, a UWM satellite campus in Tosa vs Park East is a tough one.

Park East is a TID, so someone would have to figure out a way to repay the City bonds floated to create the TID. Can't the Park East attract better private development that would add to City coffers?

On the other hand, I hate to see greenspace sprawled over in the so-called "research park," which has no real R&D jobs anyway. Plus central city locations are ideal for students, who rely on transit and in turn add to he local economy.

The Tower site might be nice, as its just down the street from UWM, but I don't think UWM or Cudahy would go for it.

Combining the Engineering school with UWM's new School of Public Health might be the better option, as long as it doesn't eat up too much of the lucrative Park East land. Adding privately owned affordable housing for students would be key for a Park East UWM satellite.

James Rowen said...

JPK makes a valid point about the Park East. On the other hand, there is MSOE, with all its new infrastructure, right there.

Anonymous said...

None of you are addressing the purpose, determined by the engineering faculty, to be near the Medical College faculty and other researchers in Tosa -- nor are you addressing that means that it was not UWM but the hospitals that abandoned the city for Tosa decades ago.

If you have a plan for moving the Medical College, Froedtert Hospital, Children's Hospital, etc., to Park East -- which would remove all of that land from the city tax rolls -- let's hear it.

Don't understand why the engineering faculty wants to be near other researchers doing similar work? Read UWM's reports, after long and hard work by many there to make these decisions.

James Rowen said...

Let's remember that the hospitals moved to Tosa with government help and encouragement.

And that no one is addressing the related transportation, housing and other infrastructure issues - - many of which could have been easily addressed, say, in the Valley, which is also close to Marquette.

Dave said...

anon> The engineering school wants to be near hospitals? I'd think an Engineering school would want to be near JCI and Rockwell. Further the "Research" park is really an office park as very little research is actually done there.

As far as the Park East TID the amount of land required to put UWM there would be significantly less than on the county grounds and it is not like they are getting that land for free either. Additionally as someone pointed out and dorm buildings would be taxable.