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Tosa on Top
Why is the western suburb a dynamo of development that outshines even its big cousin to the east?

Illustration by Justin Renteria

Local media swooned in November over the news that tony retailer Nordstrom was coming to Wauwatosa’s Mayfair Mall in three years’ time. The announcement, yet another sign of the western suburb’s economic good fortunes, even topped Page 1 of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Is it all roses for Wauwatosa these days? Surrounded by a metro area still wracked by high unemployment, the city of about 47,000 is booming. It avoided the massive downturn experienced elsewhere after the 2008 crash, and its 5 to 6 percent jobless rate is nearly half of Milwaukee’s. Per capita income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is about twice that of its big easterly neighbor, and economic development surges on unabated.

“Wauwatosa has more businesses in it today than before the recession,” says Mayor Kathleen Ehley.

Asked to explain this success, the city’s civic leaders and business moguls talk up a variation of an old real estate saw – location, location, location. At the intersection of Interstate 94 and U.S. Highway 45, Wauwatosa is positioned “almost dead center in the middle of the metropolitan area,” says William Drew, executive director of the Milwaukee County Research Park. And starting more than two decades ago, the community moved to transform the old Milwaukee County Grounds into a powerful attractor for development – the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center – which is located just up the road from the city’s attractive Village area.

Local housing is another asset. Well-established neighborhoods boast cozy bungalows, comfortable colonials and more, with many dating to early in the last century. “We’re working really hard to welcome economic development and innovation,” Ehley says, “while maintaining the character of our residential area and the vibrancy of our small business district.”

Civic boosters credit the city with welcoming businesses and making life easier for them. “The government here presents a certainty,” Drew says. Prospective developers “can count on what they’re being told by the local zoning officials and the political people.”

Gene Gilchrist, who became the medical center’s director in 2012, says officials deal with local employers as effectively as those at his last stop, Louisville, Ky., a city more than 10 times Wauwatosa’s size.

Government has impelled the near-suburb’s growth in other important ways. The research park was made possible in part by the availability of the Milwaukee County Grounds. And UW-Milwaukee’s Innovation Park (with its Innovation Technology Center, a business incubator) recently lured a robotics manufacturer, ABB, which will construct a $13.5 million facility.

The public sector didn’t stop there. Gov. Scott Walker has made rebuilding the nearby Milwaukee Zoo Interchange a top priority at a time when dollars for state highway projects are running low.
Milwaukee officials are circumspect about if – or how – their own city is hurt by development in the suburb next door. Loyalists question the need for the Zoo Interchange expansion and wish UWM had kept its new engineering campus within the school’s namesake city.

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago, didn’t call Wauwatosa a house of cards, but he foresees denser, more urban development supplanting sprawl at the edges of cities.

“If they subsidize it enough,” he says of Wauwatosa’s business park boom, “they can keep it going for a while.”

Ehley, who views the city as a mix of “small town and a big city,” may object to Norquist’s forecast, but she acknowledges her community’s somewhat precarious position.

“We need to not lose that balance.”

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