Project Milwaukee: Milwaukee and Chicago Areas Must Unite to Form Global Force

Jun 6, 2011

Economic development planners insist regions, not just cities, are becoming the leaders of the global marketplace, so southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois would be wise to capitalize on their proximity and combined strengths.

WUWM begins a weeklong series today, examining the corridor that extends from Milwaukee to Chicago.

A few years ago, the economic development group, M7 or Milwaukee 7, concluded that southeastern Wisconsin's best chances for a productive future lie in linking up with the Greater Chicago area.

In our opening segment of Project Milwaukee: Southern Connections, Marge Pitrof reports on a growing chorus of voices insisting that only together, can our part of the Great Lakes region compete globally.

Plenty of threads run through the region extending from Milwaukee to Chicago, including a shared geography on the shores of Lake Michigan. Cities here spawned as transportation hubs and leaders in heavy manufacturing, luring generations of skilled workers. Today, there are clusters of firms that feed off each other. Yet state line mentality runs deep. Think Brewers/Cubs and "Flatlanders" vacationing alongside "Cheeseheads". Adding to the competition this year may be the "Open for Business" signs Governor Walker unveiled along the border, urging Illinois companies to relocate - north.

"We're making changes that make it easier and more cost-effective for them to expand and to reinvest here in the state of Wisconsin," Walker announced.

So it may be humbling for competitors to learn that we are already connected and seem to need each other, to succeed in today's global economy. Pat O'Brien is executive director of the M7 and travels overseas to lure business here. He says Milwaukee, for example, must realize most of the world does not know where the city is located.

"We get a much better reaction when we position ourselves as the northern and best part of the greater Chicago region," O'Brien says.

Chicago, being an internationally-recognized global city. That means, among other things, it is home to major corporations and services, and its air, rail and shipping systems handle massive amounts of commerce. Even so, O'Brien says its congestion and expense have put off some sectors.

"They still do manufacturing, but manufacturing, the cost of doing business has gone gone up in Illinois and is higher than in the Milwaukee region," O'Brien says.

Yet, O'Brien says, pair the two metro areas encompassing everything between – including Racine and Kenosha, tether it all to Chicago - and you have a regional force to reckon with.

"We have daily flight to Europe in and out of O'Hare airport, and from Milwaukee's Mitchell airport, you can get anywhere in the country within a day. We have cost advantages over both the east and west coast. But our real competitive advantage today is in innovation and advanced technology. We still have a highly productive workforce and educational systems that can only be matched in a few other places," O'Brien says.

A new regional economy has already sprouted heading north out of Chicago.

"And you can see the benefits that flow to Kenosha County, in particular, and growth that has occurred, and that's no accident," According to Ken Yunker.

Ken Yunker is executive director of SEWRPC, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. After Kenosha lost its big auto industry, it began marketing itself as Chicago suburb - with an affordable cost of living and amenities such as the lakefront and rail service headed south. Today, Yunker says, Kenosha is home to Wisconsin's largest industrial office park – LakeView Corporate, with more than 70 companies and a workforce approaching 8,000. On the other side of the border are giant pharmaceutical and medical equipment makers. So plenty of residents spill across the state line every day to either work or live on the other side. Yunker says it all forms what major industries need to recruit top talent: life-style options and a "labor shed" - a region with abundant career opportunities.

"To attract an employee, their spouse has to find a job in the area. And they may be looking at, where would my next job and my next job be. So if you're just located out in the middle of Iowa or somewhere like that, what other opportunities are there? But here, you have Milwaukee, you have Kenosha, you have the Chicago area," Yunker says.

The key ingredient to successful regions is indeed a growing job market and parallel work force, according to Joel Kotkin. He's a presidential fellow at Chapman University in California and studies demographic trends. Kotkin says the recent pattern here, as elsewhere, has been for middle class families to move outward, to newer, less dense communities with attractive schools; and many businesses have set up shop on the periphery as well. As a result, cities, including Chicago and Milwaukee have watched their populations drop.

"The region obviously is, in many ways, stronger than the city is. Yet the region does have some dependence on the city. The city provides the airport, the concentration that leads to the media, the rail connections," Kotkin says.

Bill Testa agrees, only regions can provide the scope of services and opportunities the new gloal marketplace demands. Testa is a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and has been insisting for years that the metro Milwaukee and Chicago areas recognize and market themselves as one.

"Both Chicago and Milwaukee have not had a successful economic time over the past 10-12 years, and it think probably behooves both of them to do the basic blocking and tackling to become more successful as a region to the benefit and success of both places," Testa says.

Testa says the bookends are already close enough to be considered a single labor market – 86 miles, closer than some commercial hubs on the east and west coasts. And the region's population exceeds 11 million, an impressive marketplace.

Testa acknowledges both states must address their fiscal problems if they hope to grow, because investors want stability. But he says leaders should talk about joint ventures – particularly marketing the region and improving commuter links, because our fates are tied. Planning groups such as the M7 and SEWRPC say they plan to keep that conversation alive, Yet, nested somewhere, Testa suspects the two states will continue competing and says it too can produce regional fever.