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.

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