Best bet for Milwaukee: grow UWM

As Gov. Walker, the legislature and the University of Wisconsin Regents address the 2017-2019 budget for the state, they need to be mindful that the Milwaukee was one of three metropolitan areas out of 51 with a population over one million people that lost jobs in 2016. The four-county area lost about 2000 jobs.

The pattern has been there for a decade. The four-county area lost about 3000 jobs from 2006 through 2016, and the two-county Racine metro area lost another 4000.

That is despite the heroic efforts of the Milwaukee 7 Economic Development Partnership over roughly the same time period on 77 relocations and expansions that increased the job count by about 14,500.

The Milwaukee metro area also lost population. Its out-migration was 22,597 from 2010 to 2014. Fewer jobs and fewer people tend to run together.

Without the M7 strategies, the picture would be worse. There are many reasons for the stagnation, including the rapidly increasing productivity of the manufacturing sector, once a source of job growth. Weather, high taxes and crime rates also play roles.

The long and short of these realities is that state and M7 leaders need to take a step back and come up with some additional strategic departures to reverse these unhealthy economic trends.

First, though, we need to face some economic truths:

• Downtown Milwaukee in the midst of real estate boom, often subsidized by state or local taxpayers. Great! But beyond the initial construction jobs, which are very helpful, such development doesn’t move the long-term job numbers.

• Every public entity, business and many non-profits organizations have supported workforce training. Again, these programs are enormously helpful. But job creation has to come first.

• Recruiting from other states and countries is not a winning strategy for Wisconsin. We, of course, need a welcome mat for companies who want to locate here. But there aren’t enough of them to make a big difference. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. smartly shifted funds away from this failed strategy.

• Jobs are the missing link in the efforts to resuscitate Milwaukee central city dynamics.

• Our best growth clusters are in areas like finance, health care, IT, business services, education and insurance. They merit maximum support.

So what have we learned and what bold steps can we as a state and region take toward reinvention?

For openers, we have learned what a great university can do for prosperity as we watch the University of Wisconsin – Madison lead its south central region to high levels of prosperity. For my money, I would make the state’s biggest bet on lifting the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee to the status of a world class status urban university.

UWM, our region’s largest and smartest organization, has come a long way in the last two decades, especially in R&D and connecting its expert resources to the state’s powerful business center. Its new School of Freshwater Sciences, for example, is pivotal for the region’s Global Water Council and its 180 corporate members.

UWM is directly connected to JCI for work on energy storage, to Rockwell on the of Internet of Things, to GE Healthcare on computations for embedded systems, to the blooming startup community through the new Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship.
It is increasingly tied to our growth clusters in health care, IT, financial management and insurance through internships, collaborations and the supply of graduates
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I love UW – Madison and its prowess (for better or worse, I took my journalism courses there), but, beyond graduates, Milwaukee does not get a lot of help from the flagship campus. So, the region’s reinvention has to be generated here. The same virtue holds for centering economic development on the four-year campuses in the other regions across the state.

Other states are doing just that as they align and regionalize the structures of their state educational systems and their economic development resources. New North in northeastern Wisconsin has done just that at the ground level, combing its two universities, its private colleges, technical colleges and K-12 districts into a K-20 education council. It is tied closely to its industrial clusters. Ship building is one example.

An emerging master stroke in the M7 region is the accelerating collaboration by the region’s other excellent colleges and universities to create innovation muscle. That is increasingly happening across our campuses, often in alliance with UWM.

In the end, though, to stimulate prosperity in Milwaukee, UWM needs a fairer share of state funding. Our legislative delegation needs to take that on as a bipartisan effort. The pro-growth Democrats, a rare commodity, and pro-growth Republicans need to get their acts together.

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  • Marc Eisen

    Excellent column. Turning the Milwaukee metro economy around is key to a prosperous Wisconsin economy. And, yes, growing UWM is critical. There isn’t a successful metro region that doesn’t have a strong urban university addressing the specific social, economic and educational needs of the region. Here’s hoping that our leaders put aside the usual axe-grinding and special pleading and embrace this game plan for civic improvement.

  • colin scanes

    A good but somewhat uncritical column
    1. Yes grow UWM and UW Madison but with nationally competitive salaries for faculty and clearly identified and quantifiable outcomes. Growing both institutions is important for Wisconsin.
    2. Madison is an amazing institution but it is much easier to destroy than build. We are already seeing Madison declining based on research expenditures as the result of short term political decisions. The State’s intellectual leaders need to be speaking out.
    3. It is important that to hold leaders to account. Population growth/growth of jobs in the M7 region is non-existent. Can this be reversed. Not if it is assumed that M7 is successful or that the problem is weather (the Twin Cities are doing well will worse whether). There seems to be a dearth of leadership.