Water Council’s Amhaus expects ‘even stronger’ 2016

Two bills boosting industry clusters have stalled at the close of the legislative session, but the Water Council’s leader says the group has still made progress on its goals.

That’s because, Dean Amhaus says, state lawmakers are finally acknowledging the importance of developing Wisconsin’s industry clusters — from water technology to the food and beverage industry.

The approach has long been suggested as the way forward in economic reports such as Be Bold Wisconsin. WEDC and the UW System have made significant strides in the effort, but lawmakers haven’t been as committed until now, Amhaus said.

“They’re actually talking about economic clusters. … So we’ve made major headway forward on this,” Amhaus said in a new WisBusiness.com interview.

The co-author of the bills, state Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, said there’s not enough time to pass them. The two bills would give grants to industry cluster groups and award tax credits to cluster research.

Neylon said the first bill was amended to narrow its impact, and there’s not enough time to change it to the version he’d prefer. The tax credits bill, meanwhile, didn’t clear the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week. The Assembly is expected to adjourn this week, with neither of those bills on its calendar.

The bills, Amhaus said, would allow the Water Council to “take more leaps forward” as it continues to make the case that Milwaukee is the global water technology hub. Among the group’s recognitions last year was an economic development award from the national nonprofit technology group SSTI. Amhaus was also invited to speak at a White House roundtable on water issues.

That roundtable and an upcoming White House Water summit next month show President Barack Obama is committed to boosting research on water issues, Amhaus said. The latest signal came through Obama’s proposed budget last week, which would spend $300 million more on water research.

“It is a great step forward for our president to say, ‘Hey, water is a priority,’” Amhaus said.

The country hasn’t had to think much about water issues in the past, Amhaus said. That’s all changing now with the drought in California and the more recent uproar over Flint’s toxic tap water.

Those issues have led to renewed focus from city councils to the White House, but the private sector will also realize there’s a need to invest more in water tech and research, Amhaus said.

“I think there’s going to be increased investment and increased intent on finding those solutions,” Amhaus said.

Amhaus would know the difficulties of raising funds for water tech. The Water Council is hoping to launch a $5 million venture capital fund, but it’s been unable to raise much more after hitting the halfway mark some months ago.

Amhaus noted a water-specific fund is something “nobody else has done” but said he’s encouraged by the interest he’s heard.

“We do not have any expectation that we’re going to hit the jackpot on this at all, but we can help some of these entrepreneurs,” he said. “We’ll take an extra leap of faith with them by investing in them.”

The fund is part of the Water Council’s focus on helping small businesses, from those in its BREW startup program to others looking to expand in Milwaukee.

Major companies such as Kohler or A.O. Smith are not far away. Bringing their headquarters to the “water technology district” south of Milwaukee’s downtown, though, might not be the best option for them, Amhaus said.

Rather, Amhaus said he would prefer major companies to establish small offices in the area, working with the UW-Milwaukee and Marquette researchers and startups who are there. Those moves won’t generate major headlines, Amhaus said, but they could have a larger impact in the future.

“They are not going to catch all of the glamor, but they are very, very important because that’s the future in terms of innovation,” Amhaus said.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be large companies moving to the water technology district. Rexnord, for example, is moving the headquarters of Pennsylvania-based subsidiary Zurn to the 17-acre Reed Street Yards properties in the area, and others could join Zurn as development continues.

The Water Council, meanwhile, is developing its second Global Water Center, as its first building filled up shortly after opening in 2013. Eligible companies will get financial help from WEDC to move into the new five-story building, which will be a few blocks away from the first one and is expected to be completed next year.

The Water Council has stayed away from job creation figures and economic multipliers, but development news and the increase in patents in the area are “very tangible” proof that its efforts are working, Amhaus said.

A report last year found almost $212 million in public and private investments into the water technology district between 2010 and 2015.

Amhaus once remarked the Water Council’s goal is “world domination.”

“I would honestly say we’re there right now,” he said. “And it’s going to get even stronger.”

— By Polo Rocha,