Save me from Chicago as a savior

Some big thinkers, looking for big answers for the troubles afflicting the Milwaukee economy, keep looking south to Chicago.

They describe the Great Lakes region around Chicago as a mega-metropolitan area, of which the Milwaukee region is a part. The two areas have many linkages, and the thinkers argue that even closer ties would serve the mega-region well. They posit that institutions should work across state lines and that bigger would be better.

I appreciate the scale and intentions of that concept, but have a hard time seeing political leaders ever getting together to pull off an amalgamation of interests.

The case has been made for closer transportation links, such as linked commuter rail or high-speed rail to Chicago. But we already have upgraded interstate highways between the two cities, an Amtrak link that gets medium usage, bus service connecting to O’Hare and short-hop air service between Mitchell and O’Hare. It isn’t like you can’t get there from here.

The pro-collaboration proponents propose joint efforts to make Mitchell the third airport for Chicago, but, to the extent the market wants that solution, it already is. Chicago air travelers aren’t obtuse; they’ll use Mitchell when it makes sense for them. Further, the people running Mitchell and its airlines aren’t unsophisticated; they’ll spend marketing dollars on the Chicago market as it makes P&L sense. This doesn’t need a top-down solution.

There was some joint effort in putting together the Great Lakes Compact, but the two regions find themselves at odds on fundamental issues affecting Lake Michigan. Chicago wants to keep the Chicago Canal open so it can flush its waste waters down the Mississippi River, and many Wisconsinites would like to see it closed to put a tourniquet on the two-way flow of invasive species between the Great Lakes and Mississippi systems. That is not an issue that will be solved with dialog; it will be solved in Congress or the courts.

Some suggest that the fresh water strategy carved out by Milwaukee leaders should be a mutual effort with Chicago institutions. Mayor Rahm Emanuel stiff-armed a recent Chicago forum on the subject, sending a pessimistic message about such a joint venture. I say that Milwaukee has a head start on a brilliant strategy, one that will differentiate the M7 region, and we shouldn’t cede our lead to competitors. That is not to preclude collaboration around the Milwaukee hub. We have the leaders who can pull this off, and bold leadership is a huge advantage. Chicago doesn’t have leadership in this sector and would just slow us down.

Our economic developers still see Illinois as fertile grounds for recruiting companies to cross the state line. Gov Scott Walker rushed to the state line shortly after taking office to cheer lead on that tactic, and M7 leaders are sticking to their guns on recruiting down south. Has it paid off? I haven’t seen any success stories in the headlines. Our business climate has improved, but Wisconsin personal and corporate tax rates are still higher than those of our neighbor, even after sharp recent hikes there.

The case can be made that competition between the two states on business climate factors is healthy. At any rate, there is no sign or a truce on cross-border poaching.

In many ways, Chicago should be learning from Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Forbes ranks Milwaukee 91st as a place to do business and build a career, Chicago 132nd. Illinois’ fiscal management is a mess compared to ours.

My own bias is that bigger is often not better. Large institutions, especially large joint ventures, become slow movers on innovative solutions. Smaller is often better in terms of nimble responses to problems.

Milwaukee needs to solve its own problems. The fresh water strategy is an example. Another is the rebirth of entrepreneurial energy in the M7 region. Another is the rapidly growing level of academic R&D by Milwaukee institutions, now more than $300 million per year collectively.

Let’s not wait around for some other entity to reinvent our economy.

This entry was posted in Business and Government. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Jhinwb

    right John, bigger is usually slower to move and less able to be innovative….
    most of us who live in “slower paced” Wisconsin find Illinois living not living at all when
    you are on the tollway or trying to get somewhere on the Eden’s or Kennedy “expressways”….
    everything seems to cost more a give less value for a buck across the border…..
    they could use us and that’s just what they would do while doing the Chicago style Emmanuel stiff arm.

  • Anonymous

    John, your title is offensive but your analysis is good.  Like you, I do not foresee a collaboration led by elected officials.  Instead, the melding of the metropolitan area around the southern part of the lake, and including northwest Indiana to South Bend, is simply happening.  Our public relations firm concentrates on the area, mostly through observation that the borders mean less and less than before.  Who will lead?  The households with one wage earner in Wisconsin and another in Illinois will have a big effect.  Banks and professional firms with clientele and ambitions across borders will conduct themselves as residents of the linked metropolis.  Universities and medical institutions with similar regional interests will have their impact. The real estate development and services industry is an opportunistic one that often has capital and expertise at work in the multi-state region.  In short, the pooled metropolis will emerge from the market and the market, in turn, will force some governmental decisions.  As for the pride you take in the Milwaukee Water Council, that is justified but should not be chauvinist.  We know a South Bend enterprise and numbers of Chicago professionals who are respectful of Milwaukee’s focus and ready to gain from it, while contributing what they know.  The Milwaukee effort can serve the region, just as some positive occurrences in Chicago’s technology sector can contribute to Wisconsin and Indiana.  

    • Anonymous

      I agree that the links between these Great Lakes cities will – and should — grow organically. As you suggest, businesses don’t pay attention to governmental borders. They look at markets. I also agree that the governmental units will follow along as the market moves.

      • Anonymous

         Thanks, John.  An example of government’s divergent interest comes from Indiana.  When Mitch Daniels became governor of Indiana, he asked that his rival, former Governor Joe Kernan, serve on a commission that would examine the hundreds of governmental units in the state.  The commission’s intention was a reduction in the number of units through elimination of those bodies that had become obsolete because of factors such as communication and transportation, in addition to simple redundancy.  Even elected officials acknowledged that their own entities had no purpose.  The commission did its work and produced its report.  Not much happened.  The structures still reflect times when 15 or 20 miles was a great distance, or when a certain concern caused the creation of a certain governmental unit. 

        In Chicago and in Wisconsin, we see the same fiefdoms.  Cook County is larger than Chicago but is mostly Chicago.  The Southeast Wisconsin W7 made up of the seven counties is a good economic force but probably loses flexibility and power because of shifting interests among the seven joined counties. 

        Any hope that a practical, effective shaping of a metropolitan community will come from government probably founders on the government’s own preference for neighborhood, precinct, and township scale. 

  • Joe E

     Great article, I feel not only are small businesses more nimble, with current transportation and technology, companies in general will never need to become large in size to be big in the market. When companies grow exponentially, they become more apt to waste. The need to have large departments of people doing data entry, or even customer service for example will be reduced dramatically by tech advances. WI businesses are in a perfect position to be an example for which others (like Chicago) should want to work with us. I believe Scott is doing a great job of keeping government on the sidelines like a good coach, not interfering too much, and even helping businesses through the likes of WEDC. I have recently tapped them for my own personal use, and was amazed at the service and response (compared to my more loathsome trips to the DMV)

  • Dan Seininger

    This is one of those rare instances when I agree with you.

    Next thing you want us to do is cheer for the Chicago Bears !

    Dan Steininger