Project Milwaukee: Economic Development Churns Ahead in SE Wisconsin

Jun 7, 2011

Where some see weeds, others see opportunity. A visit to the former Delphi plant as we continue Project Milwaukee.

All this week on WUWM, we present Project Milwaukee: Southern Connections. We're exploring the region from Milwaukee to the Greater Chicago area because some economic development experts insist it must work jointly, to succeed in today's global marketplace. The churn of new construction has certainly been reshaping the landscape. On what used to be a checkerboard of farm fields now sit subdivisions and industrial parks.

Former Delphi property in Oak Creek.

Strands of barbed wire sag from the top of a metal fence at the former Delphi plant on Howell and Drexel in Oak Creek. Scraggly weeds snake through what used to be the parking lot for more than 1,400 workers at the auto parts plant. The place looks pretty rough. But then, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

"At this point we're pretty much working with a blank canvas," Jerry Franke says.

Franke is President of WisPark, WE Energies real estate subsidiary.

City officials in Oak Creek are pondering how to redevelop the 85 acre property. One possibility is a mixed use development that would include a new city hall, residential, and retail properties. Franke says WisPark is standing shoulder to shoulder with the city as the decision-making process chugs along.

"As part of the approval for the Oak Creek power plant, Wisconsin Energy Corporation made a commitment to invest $20 million in real estate development in the community. That's based sort of on our model for Lake View Corporate Park down in Pleasant Prairie where, when we developed the power plant, we wanted to demonstrate that it would not negate development, but rather encourage development. And, we've had over a billion dollars of development down there," Franke says.

Lake View Corporate Park is located in southern Kenosha County. The 24-hundred acre site is so big it could accommodate the entire village of Hales Corners. WisPark started development about 25 years ago, and today almost 8,000 people work at companies in the park.

Flags of several countries wave above the Lake Park Corporate Park in Pleasant Prairie in Kenosha County.

Franke says more than half of the companies in the park expanded or relocated from Illinois.

"One the primary drivers was that most of the decision makers live in the northern suburban areas and it's actually easier for them to go north in the morning and come to their plants then it is to go, say to some of the industrial areas down in the metro Chicago area," Franke says.

Location is just one reason companies such as paint-maker Rust-Oleum and packaging giant Uline have made the move. Other attributes include lower land costs than in Illinois and easy access to transportation arteries, including rail. Then there's also the big labor pool, including many workers who honed specialized skills at factories, such as the now defunct, Western Publishing, the maker of the Golden Books series.

Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig says he got a first person testament of how companies rank the quality of labor when he chatted recently with executives of Seda International. The Italian packaging company will soon begin North American operations in a new industrial park on Highway 20 east of I 94.

"What they said was that the workforce that's available, in particular, the history Wisconsin and Racine has in printing, that they felt they could bring in a real qualified workforce," Ladwig says.

Ladwig says Seda chose Racine for its new $60 million facility over other locations in Ohio and Quebec.

Todd Battle is with the economic development agency, Kenosha Area Business Alliance. He says the region's abundant labor supply is an attribute his agency emphasizes whenever communicating with prospective employers.

"Clearly when people are siting facilities –offices, manufacturing facilities, they are making long term investments and so they're trying to evaluate future workforce and future talent and the ability to staff the company and grow the company," Battle says.

One of Battle's counterparts echoes his thoughts about the regional labor pool.

Steve Anderson heads Lake County Partners, an economic development agency that advocates for business retention and expansion throughout northern Illinois. Anderson, a native Californian, calls the work ethic here, impressive.

"The reality is the folks in this region and in the Midwest in general really like to work," Anderson says.

He adds, he's also impressed by the desire of elected officials in southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois, not to get bogged down in "turf wars."

A new report reinforces the strategy of cooperating rather than competing for new business. The analysis by the group, Forward Wisconsin, shows neither state having a clear advantage. For instance, the data gives Wisconsin more favorable marks for corporate and personal income taxes, while Illinois manufacturing workers are paid slightly higher weekly wages. So together, they'd provide companies with more options.

Regional economic development however, is a relatively new phenomenon in our area. Most area industrial parks here are less than 15 years old. But from Oak Creek to Deerfield there are abundant opportunities for growth. Tomorrow, in Project Milwaukee: Southern Connections, we'll explore a key ingredient to successful regions: transportation.