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WisBusiness: Free water touted as tonic for job-parched industrial corridor in Milwaukee

By Kay Nolan
For WisBusiness

MILWAUKEE -- A call to offer free municipal water to attract new employers and a push to expand the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee beyond its east side campus dominated a panel discussion Thursday morning on the future of Milwaukee’s 30th Street industrial corridor.

Badger Meter's Richard Meeusen says city water could be a key incentive in the corridor's redevelopment.

Pointing to the proximity of Lake Michigan and a municipal water works built to accommodate multiple breweries and large factories during Milwaukee’s manufacturing peak, Meeusen suggested offering free water for five years to companies that bring jobs to the corridor.

“If you’re going to revitalize 30th Street, we need to face facts,” said Meeusen. “Wisconsin is not a good state to do business in. Milwaukee, compared to Wisconsin, is at a competitive disadvantage because it has problems with transit, schools and crime and has higher taxes than the rest of the state. And 30th Street is at a competitive disadvantage compared to the rest of Milwaukee.

“Right now, tax credits are the only arrow in our quiver,” he said. “I say, forget TIF districts. Let’s create a water district. It won’t cost the city anything because the water utility is operating at just 30 percent capacity.”

Rocky Marcoux, Milwaukee’s commissioner of development, said afterward that the idea has merit, but would face an uphill battle for approval by the state’s Public Service Commission, which regulates water utilities. In addition, he said, “There’s a lot of legal work that has to be done. We have to be sure it would be fair to all the other ratepayers.”

The breakfast forum at DRS Power & Control Technologies -- a former Cutler-Hammer manufacturing facility along N. 30th St. that boasted more than 6,000 workers in its heyday in the 1950s, and now houses a power electronics firm with fewer than 500 employees -- attracted about 100 local business people to hear ideas on how to revitalize the struggling industrial area.

UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago was the keynote speaker. Panelists included Meeusen, Michael Floyd of Glenn Rieder Inc., Alan Perlstein of DRS Power & Control Technologies Inc. and Peggy Troy from Children’s Hospital and Health System Inc. Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, was the moderator.

The 30th Street Corridor, which roughly spans N. 27th to N. 35th streets between Hampton Ave. and Highland Blvd, was once one of Milwaukee’s major tannery, railroad and manufacturing hubs. It still is home to such high-profile employers as Harley-Davidson, MillerCoors Brewing, and Eaton Corp. But in recent decades, the area has been plagued with empty factories, most notably the sprawling A.O.Smith/Tower Automotive complex. Contamination from industrial waste makes redevelopment a challenge; in addition, the surrounding residential neighborhood is rife with poverty, unemployment and vacant residences.

According to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources report on the area, recent census data puts neighborhood unemployment at 19 percent and notes that at least 15 percent of the housing units are vacant. Approximately 34 percent of the population in the corridor live in poverty, and 97 percent of residents are considered minority.

The city of Milwaukee is planning to purchase about 84 acres of the roughly 150-acre Tower property, clean up brownfields and create a new business park. In 2007, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett announced a commitment to revitalizing the area, dubbing it the “Greenlight District” because it would get the green light for TIF funds and other incentives.

Federal economic stimulus funds, as well as EPA Brownfield Assessment Grants, will be used toward the effort. Gov. Jim Doyle announced earlier this month that $150,000 in federal funds were granted to the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority to help develop a strategy for the project.

At Thursday’s breakfast, Barrett said reducing crime in the area and improving public school performance was needed in order to match nearby residents with potential new jobs.

“It’s why we’re getting into an ugly battle with MPS,” he said. “Too many schools are failing our kids.” Panelist Peggy Troy of Children’s Hospital agreed, saying Milwaukee’s school system is the biggest deterrent to attracting new industry and medical research. Another panelist, Michael Floyd, said his architectural millwork company has been in the corridor for 21 years but has few employees who live in the neighborhood.

UWM students have been charged with reviewing former plans for the corridor, combining data and identifying gaps in those plans. But Santiago focused his remarks on his goal to make UWM a “premier urban research university” by building new facilities and programs that will attract engineers and scientists. He cited UWM’s plans to build a bioengineering school in Wauwatosa, near the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Asked if the 30th Street Corridor might become such a site, he wavered.

“It’s not about real estate, it’s about partnerships,” he said. “Wauwatosa has possibilities; here, we’d need to develop them.”

Meeusen, of Badger Meter, urged Milwaukee to promote the corridor as a hub for companies whose products are related to water, including water heaters, meters, pumps, and bathroom fixtures.

“There are already 120 water technology companies in the seven-county Milwaukee area, five of them among the largest water tech companies in the world,” he said. “If young entrepreneurs have an idea for a new computer company, where are they told to go? Silicon Valley. Wouldn’t it be great if, five years from now, if an entrepreneur says, ‘I’ve got an idea for a water tech company, a wet industry,’ everybody would say, ‘You’ve got to go to Milwaukee.’”

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