The point of this study is to detail practical solutions and guidelines that can transform Milwaukee’s future.
Cities never stand still. They are constantly in motion, constantly evolving. From generation to generation the people are different, the industries are different. The street grid might be the same, parks and public buildings might be in the same location, but everything else is undergoing slow, steady change.
So too the very definition of what it means to be a city is changing. Cities sprang up at key geographic locations and were populated by workers capable of producing tangible products to market externally. Like Milwaukee, cities prospered because they were well-located and capable of producing what the world of commerce needed. Now that is changing. Today, prosperous cities have economies built on providing services and grow wealthy producing things that cannot be seen or touched. More significantly, cities are becoming places dominated not by producers, but by consumers.
This report is an analysis of Milwaukee, and, as any such analysis, it requires perspective. We will provide that perspective. How does the Milwaukee of today compare to the historical Milwaukee? How does it compare to other large cities? How does it relate to the suburban communities that have grown up in its shadow, and how does it relate to the state of Wisconsin?
More important, we will examine the factors underlying the economic success of any city; how well does each add value to the national and global market? After all, only by adding value does a city distinguish itself. Cities that add value to the economy grow and prosper.
And that is where the change in the nature of cities has been most pronounced. Modern cities that add value are marked, not so much by the products and services they sell, but by the nature of the people who live there. The relentless force that is reshaping cities across America is human capital. Those cities that have an abundance of industrious, educated citizens are prosperous. Every other city is looking for ways to elevate their own stock of human capital. Milwaukee is in this latter category.
However, Milwaukee is also a city that is making progress in adopting a new economic model. The past decade has seen a dramatic shift from manufacturing to services and technology-based industry. Biomedical now has over 1,500 employees. The financial services industry has grown several national leaders such as Fiserv and Metavante, which are linked to almost half the ATMs in the nation. Northwestern Mutual has grown to be the most respected company in its industry and has over $1 trillion dollars of insurance in force. The Medical College of Wisconsin has become a major health researcher, generating over $120 million annually in research. Aurora has become a huge health care system that attracts patients from outside the region. Even in manufacturing the evolution has been dramatic: Johnson Controls now has close to $35 billion in annual sales and yet does no manufacturing in Wisconsin— it runs the entire operation and develops new products here. The Milwaukee Art Museum draws attention from across the world. Change has affected almost every industry.
But exactly where is Milwaukee in its economic cycle? Is it in decline or is it on the way up? That depends again on perspective. When measured against other large American cities, Milwaukee is in descent: it was losing population for decades (although it appears to have stabilized in the last few years), it is falling behind in per capita income, and it has been losing jobs. All of these factors have significant implications for residents of the city, the region, and the state.
Where is Milwaukee in its economic cycle? If compared to its own history, the city is making some headway, slowly adding more college-educated workers, reinventing its economy, and beginning new efforts to upgrade the training and capabilities of its workforce.
This study will examine the Milwaukee economic condition from a very broad perspective. Section 2 will examine the role that American cities play in the current economy and discuss how that role has changed in recent decades. Also in this section we will discuss what differentiates cities on the economic ladder and what the economic success of a city means to the economy of a region and state.
Section 3 will take a closer look at the Milwaukee economy and will identify what Milwaukee has done right and where it comes up short when compared to more successful cities. Of particular note is the discussion of Milwaukee’s workforce. We identify examples where the potential of the existing workforce has not been maximized. Also, we specify the extent to which Milwaukee has come up short in attracting more of the better-educated workers that will fuel future economic growth.
In Section 4 we will glean from the assessment of Section 3 and include a set of tangible, practical recommendations intended to accelerate the region’s economic growth. It is a set of recommendations that should look familiar to students of urban economic growth in contemporary America. It is also a set of recommendations that will test the will of those in the business community as well as those in government. How committed is the region to build- ing on strengths and shoring up weaknesses that have hindered efforts to recapture Milwaukee’s place among America’s top urban centers?