By Tom Still
MILWAUKEE – Dean Amhaus, the image-conscious president of Spirit of Milwaukee, won’t even mention the title of that 1970s sitcom featuring two ditzy women who worked at a Milwaukee brewery. The name of the show (let’s call it “L and S,” in respect to Amhaus) is banned from his vocabulary – and he pleads with others to do the same.
Frank Langley of Pel-Freez, a biotech firm that recently persuaded its Scandinavian owners to consolidate North American operations in Milwaukee, tells his employees to change the subject when someone brings up beer, brats, cheese and Packers. Not that he doesn’t like all four on occasion, but Langley wants people in and out of Wisconsin to get a more tech-savvy picture of the state.
Those are just two examples of how Milwaukee is transforming its image from that of a blue-collar manufacturing town where nothing much happens before or after dark to that of a 21st century city inhabited by young workers, cool companies and cutting-edge technologists. This Extreme Makeover is yet to be completed, but it’s well under way and it’s based on reality rather than made-for-TV spin.
Last week’s “eForum” in Milwaukee highlighted some of the assets and challenges facing southeast Wisconsin. The conference featured the release of a report, “Southeastern Wisconsin 2004 Directory of Information and Biomedical Companies,” that portrayed metro Milwaukee as an emerging mix of information technology and life sciences companies.
Sponsored by We Energies in conjunction with two regional tech associations, eInnovate and the Wisconsin IT Leadership Association, the directory was a reminder of how much is already in place. The report identified 500 IT companies in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties. These firms employ 21,550 workers with a total annual payroll of about $1.2 billion. The report also tagged 75 biomedical firms, employing 4,000 workers with a total annual payroll of $250 million.
In addition, the report inventoried trends relating to the characteristics, demographics and industry segmentation of these firms to determine which types of development plans and programs could accelerate their growth as well as further public awareness of the region’s technology companies.
“Our hope is the directory will increase the amount of business for tech companies, connect tech companies with each other and connect tech companies with a significant amount of resources available to them through universities, law and accounting firms, consulting organizations, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, local development corporations and others,” said Penny Scheuerman of We Energies (email@example.com).
Not all of the news about Milwaukee was good, of course. Panelists and speakers such as Amhaus and Langley pointed to continuing image problems that hold back the region. The eForum keynote speaker, researcher Ross DeVol of the California-based Milken Institute, reported that Milwaukee lags behind the United States in high-tech economic output as a percentage of all activity. In fact, Wisconsin also trails in most indicators. Research and development inputs (24th) and human capital investment (18th) were the only two categories in which Wisconsin in the top half of the 50 states.
What can southeast Wisconsin do to catch up? A little bit of everything, according to DeVol, who cited development of a new strategic vision for the area, stronger public-private partnerships, more commercialization of R&D, increased access to investment capital for start-up firms, fostering a culture of entrepreneurship, attracting and retaining top-flight managers and communicating the message that a “knowledge-based” economy is metro Milwaukee’s future.
Fortunately, all of those ideas are being tackled in one form or another. Milwaukee will not catch up to the nation’s tech centers overnight, but the foundation for a city that need not apologize for its economy or its image is being laid.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.