Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is angry like a mother bear protecting a sickly cub. He pauses for effect. “This raid,” he says, with the second word reverberating inside Ingeteam’s state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, where an audience has assembled to hear his 2012 State of the City address, “is an unconscionable bait and switch.”
It’s mid-February, and he’s referring to the $25.6 million Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen have funneled into the state budget and away from programs designed to ease the foreclosure crisis. The money was part of $140 million Wisconsin won in a national settlement with banks – and of which Barrett is making political hay. His record on jobs, bolstered by Ingeteam and other successes in the Menomonee River Valley, is facing another test in a northern tract along the old 30th Street Industrial Corridor.
The North Side sliver is in shambles, and foreclosures are rampant on either side. The heart of the complex, the old Tower Automotive site, is an 84-acre ghost town sandwiched between Capitol Drive and Townsend Street. The city has already committed $35 million to leveling and redeveloping the site; Barrett would like a piece of the foreclosure settlement to level rotting homes on its doorstep. He won’t get it.
All the city can do is tear down what’s left of Tower and wait for the private sector to act. He recounts the Valley’s progress: 4,000 new jobs, a 229 percent rise in assessed value, a business park arisen from a polluted swamp. Could the same happen at “Century City,” as the site was dubbed by local Ald. Willie Wade? The name refers to the new era of Milwaukee manufacturing that city officials allude to kick-starting.
“I’m optimistic,” the mayor says.
Come July, heavy equipment is ripping down the few beleaguered structures left standing at Century City.
Before long, workers will take down the countless tarps that have long covered the site’s high fences and hidden much of it from view. City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux, Barrett’s point man for Century City, looks on at what’s left of the old industrial compound. It first manufactured automotive frames as part of A.O. Smith Corp., starting some 90 years ago. In 1997, A.O. Smith sold the operation to Tower Automotive, a Detroit-area auto parts maker, and in 2006, Tower shuttered what would become Century City.
Since then, the site has taken on a “postapocalyptic” look, Marcoux says. “If a bomb had gone off, that’s what I think it would have looked like. It was total desolation. In some ways, it was demolition by neglect.”
Will employers locate at Century City? The city moved its own Department of Public Works to the area in 2006, partly because land needed to be cleared for the Harley-Davidson Museum. Spanish train manufacturer Talgo set up a Century City shop in 2010 and hired about 45 workers, but production came to a screeching halt in 2011 when Walker refused $810 million in federal funding for high-speed rail. The company is on a national search for new orders as two trains built for Wisconsin sit mothballed at the facility.
Otherwise, no companies have announced plans to set up shop at Century City. Luring manufacturers back to the North Side polygon and Milwaukee’s inner city would mean turning back decades of suburban flight. The site’s eastern half lies within the city’s fifth police district, where officers responded to 158 nonfatal shootings and 25 homicides in 2011, the most of any of the city’s seven districts.
Crime and foreclosures suggest the Tower site, once an essential source of family-supporting jobs, has only harmed the North Side since Tower pulled out.
“It was like a rotting cancer in the middle of the city and our neighborhoods,” says Yvonne McCaskill, coordinator of the Century City Triangle Neighborhood Association. She’s lived in the area for almost 40 years. “It appeared that no one was concerned about it or the impact it had on the quality of life here.”
The Menomonee Valley, on the other hand, has become a thriving industrial corridor stretching from the Harley-Davidson Museum on South Sixth Street to Miller Park, with the Potawatomi Bingo Casino and Marquette University’s athletic fields in between. Longtime Valley manufacturers Falk Corp. and Cargill have welcomed new companies such as Palermo Villa, Badger Railing, Caleffi North America and Ingeteam as neighbors.
Repeating this decade-long success story at Century City is far from a sure thing, according to Howard Snyder, executive director of the Northwest Side Community Development Corp. “It’s very different from the Menomonee Valley,” he says. “I have mixed feelings about the possibility of success.”
The Valley sits at the doorstep of the city’s freeway system and in the shadow of Downtown, whereas Century City enjoys neither benefit, just a rail line and dense residential neighborhoods to the east and west. Marcoux says companies are looking for easy access to a willing labor force, but Snyder says many people living in the area lack job training. Century City also lacks the “visual assets” of the Valley, he says, including a beautifully restored river.
This summer, Barrett was still optimistic, but reservedly so. “We’re extremely hopeful that we can build on the strength of the Valley model,” he said, “but each neighborhood is different.”
The city’s $35 million is coming from tax incremental financing ($15 million), city tax dollars ($10 million) and other sources, including grants ($10 million). The city could spend another $20 million to restore the former A.O. Smith headquarters, though Marcoux isn’t sure where the money would come from. The historic art deco tower will be one of three buildings saved out of some 5 million square feet of manufacturing and office space.
“A.O. Smith helped feed and employ a lot of people for decades, but we realized that was over,” Wade says. “We have to take vacant industrial land and reuse it.”