By Tom Still

The City of Milwaukee’s latest economic development plan,
not unlike the Milwaukee 7 regional plan, identifies five industry
clusters primed for growth: water technology and research; food and
beverage processing; headquarters and business services; finance and
insurance; and industrial controls, automation, power and energy.

All are
worthy targets that build on the region’s historic and emerging
strengths. If the city wants to embrace one more candidate for growth,
however, it should consider adding information technology and software
to the short list.

Why? The Milwaukee area arguably has precisely what the IT and software sector needs.

Life in
California’s Silicon Valley these days is still a frothy picture, but
emerging companies and many of their investors are bucking up against
limits in some basic physical attributes that are ultimately essential
to any urban economy.

Read the full commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.

real estate costs, housing costs and the transit infrastructure are
straining in and around the San Francisco Bay region, to the point that
some companies are looking for greener — and less expensive — pastures.

As a recent
story in TechCrunch noted, the average square-foot price for “Class A”
office space in San Francisco is $64.25, just shy of the dot-com bubble
peak 14 years ago. Commercial real estate developers are scrambling to
get their projects done before they run up against a San Francisco law
that caps the amount of office space that can be built within a given

The city grew
by more than 32,000 people between 2010 and 2013 but added fewer than
4,800 housing units during the same period — adding to an existing
housing crunch in terms of access and cost. The average price of a
one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is about $2,800 a month.

recently about why he moved his company from San Francisco to St. Louis,
Jon Wheatley of DailyBooth noted: “If you’re trying to bootstrap, being
based in San Francisco is awful. The leading cause of start-up death is
running out of money. Moving to a cheap city and doubling (or more!)
your company’s runway will more than likely vastly increase your chances
of eventual success.”

selling points start with real estate costs, both commercial and housing
stock, in part because the city is still recovering from the Great
Recession. With foreclosed properties still in long supply, many in
otherwise attractive neighborhoods, Milwaukee can compete on price and

It can also
compete on talent due to the proximity of a dozen colleges and
universities that crank out thousands of graduates, collectively, every
year. Young talent is the life’s blood of tech companies, which often
don’t distinguish between computer science graduates or music majors.
What matters most are basic smarts and a willingness to work and learn.

airport is a convenient hub and other transit options abound — even if
the Zoo Interchange project seems to be taking an eternity.

Milwaukee already has the foundation for an IT and software cluster in a
state that has more of the same. Connecture, PKWARE and Zywave are
prominent examples, along with a growing corps of start-ups tied to
Gener8tor and other sources.

Elsewhere in
Wisconsin, Epic Systems and its 7,000-plus employees in Verona is the
national leader in electronic health records. Cray Inc. in Chippewa
Falls, Renaissance Learning in Wisconsin Rapids; Skyward in Stevens
Point; Plexus and Aver Informatics in the Fox Valley; Singlewire and
Sonic Foundry in Madison are among other examples.

Take a walk around Milwaukee’s Third Ward and you’ll see more evidence of the rise of Wisconsin’s digital entrepreneurs.

Wisconsin has
also landed offices from major companies such as Google, Microsoft,
CDW, Zendesk and Dell, as well as a distribution center for Amazon.
Investors from outside the state are paying increased attention, as
well, in part because of the combination of cost and talent.

Speaking at a
recent Wisconsin Innovation Network in Madison, Brookfield-bred
investor John Philosophos said his New York venture capital firm, Great
Oaks Venture Capital, has invested in 15 companies here.

magazine recently ranked the Madison area fifth on its list of “Cities
Creating the Most Information Technology Jobs,” in part an Epic
phenomenon but also due to a host of start-ups and emerging companies
working on everything from gaming to digital music to new ways to order
food and buy groceries.

The timing is
right and so is the alignment of Milwaukee’s assets. An already strong
economic development plan could only get better with a nod to IT and