WisBusiness: Rebirth underway for Milwaukee industrial corridor

By Brian E. Clark

MILWAUKEE – When the Sigma Group moved from Oak Creek to the Menomonee Valley a little more than a year ago, many viewed it as a risk.

Not Dave Scherzer, president of the Sigma civil engineering and environmental services company. For him and his firm, it was an opportunity to make a point.

“A lot of people asked us why we’d want to build in the valley,” said Scherzer, whose company built a 29,000 square-foot structure on a three-acre site at South 13th and West Canal streets.

“But what better way to demonstrate our technical abilities and our commitment to cleaning up brownfields than by putting up our own building here?” he mused.

According to data from a study produced by Sigma with the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, Sigma’s new building increased the value of the valley property from $112,000 to $3 million. That, in turn, meant $78,000 in tax revenue last year for the city of Milwaukee.

The project’s environmental benefits include cutting the amount of stormwater runoff from the property by 45,000 gallons a year. It also boosted green space on the property by 36 percent, made room for an asphalt bike trail and created 618 feet of public access to the Menomonee River.

Ben Gramling, environmental coordinator for the Sixteenth Street Health Center, said his group has great hopes for the valley. His organization has been working on the revitalization effort for about eight years.

“We are very pleased with how things are progressing,” said Gramling. If all goes well, he said the valley could add 5,000 jobs in the next decade. Currently, he estimated 10,000 people work there.

“We want new economic development and quality jobs for our southside communities,” he said. “All of the partners are working collectively to change how people think about the valley.

“By redeveloping brownfields, we can revitalize the valley that bring economic development, restore the environment and add parks and green space, too. It’s all closely integrated. And the Sigma group’s work shows how it can be done.”

The timing of its move was ideal for Sigma, which is working with civic organizations to highlight the business and ecological benefits of moving to the valley.

In the next few months, the city of Milwaukee will begin selling property on 70 acres of a 140-parcel east of Miller Park. The other 70 acres of the Milwaukee Road shops site have been set aside for parkland that will double as a “storm-water” catch basin.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who secured $3 million in federal brownfield grants to clean up the valley when he was a congressman, said the valley’s renewal has begun.

“Milwaukee’s most visible eyesore is now one of our most visible opportunities to attract jobs to this city,” he said.

Also in the working stage is a plan by Menomonee Valley Partners, a community group, to buy the 10-acre Milwaukee Stockyards across the street from Sigma.

“We’re doing our due diligence on the land now,” said Laura Bray, executive director of the organization.

Cleanup of the long-vacant Milwaukee Road property, which cost $20 million, was finished in November. Bray and city officials hope light industrial companies that move in will create more than 1,000 jobs.

Once the third largest rail car maker in the United States, Milwaukee Road had more than 3,000 employees in the early 1900s. It was the largest employer in the city at the time and drew many of its workers from the Merrill Park and Piggsville neighborhoods.

Bray said redevelopment of the valley’s west end is an important start for restoring the economic and environmental health of the entire 1,200-acre valley. By 2015, officials are hoping the valley will sprout 3 million square feet of new construction and thousands of jobs.

Scherzer said the move has worked well for his company and its 75 employees. It has put him closer to many clients, and shortened commute times overall for workers.

“After marriage and kids, this has been one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” he said.

“The location is great for us, it has boosted morale and it has been nothing but positive so far,” he said.

Now, when he talks to a potential business client about moving to the valley, he can use the Sigma Group’s experience as a real-life example.

“We’ve taken theory and successfully implemented it here on this site,” he said. “That’s worth a lot.”

Bray, who took on the directorship of Menomonee Valley Partners last year, balked at calling the area blighted and said it is an area in transition.

In addition to its brownfields, the valley is home to Marquette University soccer fields, the Potawatami Casino and a number of industries.

If all goes as planned, the Harley Davidson museum and office park – which could create several hundred jobs – will soon be built at the east end of the valley.

Bray said her group – which is supported by a number of foundations, state agencies and business groups – wants to maximize the economic development of the valley for the entire Milwaukee community.

“We want to create industrial jobs with family supporting wages,” she said.

She said the valley is attractive to firms because it is next to the most densely populated area in the state.

“Companies need to be located near workers,” she said. “They’ve found that when they move out of the central core, they might have access to better land, but they’ve learned it’s difficult to get workers to their jobs.

“We have a great location with access to multi-modal transportation and downtown Milwaukee,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of firms knocking at our door. We’ve got a file full of prospects.”

Just as the Sigma property is a “poster child” for what can be done with valley property, Bray said she hopes the Milwaukee Road parcel will be a showcase for development.

In addition, she said her group wants to retain the businesses that are still in the valley.

“We aren’t in a position to force anyone to move,” she said. “And if an existing company wants to expand, we can help them with ‘Renewal Community’ tax credits for employing local workers and things like that.

“We’re not only about land development and new buildings,” she said.

Though she is an ardent booster for her turf, Bray acknowledged it can be an uphill battle to convince people that the valley is not a dirty, inhospitable place for businesses.

“We have to work to convince people that they can get in here and that we are cleaning up the environment and putting in parks like the Hank Aaron Trail,” she said.

“In addition to creating adding many new businesses and jobs, we will have mixed recreation space and connections to neighborhoods,” she said. “This is an exciting time to be working on the valley. We are doing something big.”