By Tom Still
MILWAUKEE – If you judged Milwaukee by the economic indicators alone, you might conclude it’s a real-life version of Radiator Springs, the dusty, bypassed town in the hit animated movie “Cars.” But just as Radiator Springs earned a happy, Hollywood ending, maybe there’s a more prosperous, real-life road ahead for Wisconsin’s largest city.
Let’s hope so, because without a healthy Milwaukee, most of Wisconsin will pay the price.
A recent spate of statistics confirms what most observers suspected: Milwaukee’s economy has taken a hit in the past five or six years.
n When the state Department of Workforce Development reported job gain and loss development data for the state’s 12 metropolitan areas in late April, Milwaukee was one of only two regions showing a loss. Janesville lost 300 jobs for the year ending March 31; Milwaukee lost 7,700.
n Another report by MBG Information Services, drawing on federal job data, showed the four-county Milwaukee area had a net loss of 9,000 jobs from April 2005 to April 2006. That figure was the fourth largest in the United States.
n The Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago examined job growth and loss in its district, which includes most of Wisconsin and all or parts of four other Midwest states, and concluded the Milwaukee region had experienced between a 6 percent and 12 percent job loss since 2000.
The decline in manufacturing, especially in the automotive industry, has clobbered Milwaukee. Somewhat belatedly, the city’s political, economic and academic leadership has decided that commitment to building a high-growth, high-tech economy is the answer. But no one should pretend it’s anything other than a long-term answer.
A just-released study titled “An Innovation Economy Strategy for Metro Milwaukee” ranked Milwaukee 48th among the 50 largest metro areas in converting new technology from research to the marketplace. Only Las Vegas, Nev., and Grand Rapids, Mich., ranked behind Milwaukee is converting technology from the labs to the marketplace. San Francisco, Boston and Denver led the 50-city list.
Moving out of the bottom half of the class will take homework. It will require more aggressive pursuit of federal merit-based research grants, of private equity investments in tech-based start-up firms, and a more coordinated tech transfer approach. That must involve the Milwaukee region’s academic leaders – including the Medical College of Wisconsin, UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Indeed, four of the study’s five major recommendations revolve around leveraging the collective power of those institutions.
Progress will also require a continued evolution in attitude. The emergence of the Milwaukee 7 regional economic collaborative is a sure sign that leaders inside city and county limits have ended their undeclared war on the surrounding counties. While some leaders are still too quick to point a jealous finger toward Madison, most recognize that Milwaukee’s fate lies in its own hands. In a global economy, cities such as Milwaukee don’t get ahead by worrying about Madison or Green Bay; they must compete with the likes of Shanghai, Singapore and Dublin.
Likewise, those outside Milwaukee need to understand the importance of the task ahead. A weaker or even impoverished Milwaukee helps no one. It is the state’s financial and business center, a global port of entry for trade goods and a transportation hub that directly or indirectly serves much of the state. Our economy needs as many skilled workers as our schools can produce, which means everyone has a stake in a healthy education system for Milwaukee. If Milwaukee falters, state tax revenues will remain stagnant. That means less for activities ranging from Medicaid payments to the UW System to road repairs.
A vibrant Milwaukee is necessary for a vibrant Wisconsin. As the city defines its economic future, the rest of Wisconsin should pay attention – and pull for a turnaround, sooner than later.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.