21 Ideas to Change Milwaukee

Illustrations by Joel Kimmel County Executive Chris Abele remembers the nighttime rain when the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition officially opened in 2001. He remembers the tents set up on O’Donnell Plaza. He remembers how “burnt out” many of the supporters were after the dot-com crash and the addition’s unprecedented $100 million price tag. (“I was on the board early on before the Calatrava,” Abele says, “back when it was a $27 million project.”)  But “the wings started to slowly open up,” he says, “and I know I was very much not the only person there who thought, ‘I am…

Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

County Executive Chris Abele remembers the nighttime rain when the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition officially opened in 2001. He remembers the tents set up on O’Donnell Plaza. He remembers how “burnt out” many of the supporters were after the dot-com crash and the addition’s unprecedented $100 million price tag. (“I was on the board early on before the Calatrava,” Abele says, “back when it was a $27 million project.”) 

But “the wings started to slowly open up,” he says, “and I know I was very much not the only person there who thought, ‘I am so freaking glad we did this. This is just special and awesome and great.’ That moment was a different way of thinking about this city.”

That moment is exactly the kind of thing Abele would like to see more of. “At the time they chose [Santiago] Calatrava at the art museum as an architect, that was anything but the safe choice,” he says. “And some might say it was anything but a Milwaukee choice. Thank God they made it.”

When Milwaukee chose Calatrava, he’d never completed a project in the United States and had completed only one building in North America. When everyone was zigging with predictable Frank Gehry, Milwaukee zagged with a “starchitect” who was on the fringe – a risky move for a relatively staid city.

But that risky choice resulted in an extraordinary building that’s now a city icon. That sort of risk involves “accepting together that we’re going to do something differently, we’re going to look at something differently and think about something differently,” Abele says.

And Milwaukee has started to think and look at things differently. Local events have started focusing on the future of the city. (See: the Envisioning the Seen discussion at the Pabst Theater and Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity conference at Marquette.) Another such endeavor was held late summer in the City Hall rotunda with one key difference: a call to action. Answering New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s challenge, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett solicited innovative ideas from the community, ones focused specifically on mitigating the food shortage and foreclosure crisis. The mayor whittled down more than 100 submissions to 10, and those ideas were presented before a standing-room-only crowd Aug. 28.

The winner was Gretchen Mead, the founding director of the Victory Garden Initiative. She wants to repurpose foreclosed homes as urban homesteads to grow local food and provide homesteaders a path to homeownership. Her plan went up against ideas from more than 300 other cities for one of 20 finalist spots, which were to be announced in October. Representatives from those 20 cities will attend an ideas camp in November for a chance at a $5 million grant. Even if Milwaukee comes up empty-handed, Barrett has promised to act on the Milwaukee proposals, calling it the “essence of this entire challenge.”

Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, predicts this sort of civic brainstorm will become more common. “I think you’re going to see people trying to figure out better ways to solve problems that’s almost like crowdsourcing,” she says.

With an eye to the future – the year 2050 to be exact – dozens of city leaders were put to the test. What does Milwaukee need to do to become a world-class city? A large time frame was chosen to escape the day-to-day politics, focus on the big ideas and think about the next generation rather than the next election cycle.

Although local population projections for 2050 don’t exist (yes, look that far ahead), there are two possible paths for the city. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s highest projection sees Milwaukee County regaining recent population losses and exceeding 1 million residents in the next few years. But the group’s lowest projection predicts Milwaukee’s population will continue to decrease before seeing a slight uptick after 2015. That projection estimates a 2035 population of 13,600 fewer residents than in 2000. 
For Milwaukee to follow the first path – a path of growth and progress – a few things have to change. “We’d want a higher average household income than now,” Gov. Scott Walker says, which means a stable tax base and a stable population. The keys to doing that are education and employment, he says, and many of the following 21 ideas address those challenges. These ideas have the potential for big change, not unlike turning a Nike missile silo site into the Summerfest grounds, tearing down the Park East freeway spur or choosing a bold architect for a major museum project.

So roll up your sleeves, Milwaukee. We’ve got work to do.

1. Create a metro government

When a fire truck is called to a fire, does the name on the truck matter? Abele says no. “Most people,” he says, “care a hell of a lot less” about the name than the speed and efficiency of the response.

Consolidated fire departments are often used to illustrate the power of a consolidated city-county government. Creating a metro-Milwaukee government would be a way to fulfill Abele’s vision of more collaboration between the city, county and state. “It’s less about a winner or loser,” Abele says. “It’s not anti-city or anti-county; it’s pro-efficiency, anti-duplication. It would be great if the government part of 2050 Milwaukee was lean, efficient, adaptive, nimble.”

Then Milwaukee could react and adapt faster. “When you hear the mayors or leaders of those areas where they’ve done this,” Abele says, “they’ll sort of glance at the, ‘Well, you can save some money,’ which is great and true. But the thing they all talk about is that it’s a lot easier to be nimble and adapt quickly.”

The ease comes in the elimination of duplication, Abele says. Decisions can be made by one centralized unit rather than several groups. Although Abele doesn’t know specifically what Milwaukee’s metro government would look like, other cities that use the system have an executive who serves as mayor and county executive as well as a city-county council that legislates. 

One such successful city is Indianapolis, where then-mayor Richard Lugar (now a lame-duck U.S. senator) introduced the idea in the ’60s. Since 1970, Indianapolis and Marion County have been governed by Unigov, a unified government. The state of Indiana also passed a law stipulating any city with a population in excess of 600,000 institute the Unigov framework. (Estimates have the city of Milwaukee’s population passing 620,000 in 2025, from just under 595,000 in 2010.) 

But change isn’t easy. “One of the ways we get to that efficient 2050 is to be willing to make some big changes, be persistent in that and get a little blowback, because there’s always some blowback on change,” Abele says. “That’s our job.”

2. Build a wired city

If someone dreams about being an astronaut, he or she should be able to wake up and immediately have access to everything written about aerospace, says Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton. 
How to do it? A wired city – affordable, accessible wireless Internet for everyone. 

Metropolitan wireless networks were a hot topic a few years ago, and many cities, including Milwaukee, jumped on the bandwagon. After spending $700,000 on a demonstration area, Midwest Fiber wouldn’t pay an additional $20 million to complete the program unless large, foundational customers (such as the city of Milwaukee) signed on. The plan was eventually scrapped. In Minneapolis, the city ponied up $13 million for a 10-year deal that allows city employees to use the network. Private citizens can opt in with packages as low as $20 a month. 

Merely having wireless Internet, however, doesn’t close the digital divide, says Tina Chang, CEO of SysLogic. In some cases, it can widen it if people don’t have access to Internet-ready devices. She envisions a system of kiosks – on buses, in buildings, in parks – that allows the public to access the Internet without owning a smartphone, tablet or computer. “I see technology not just at people’s fingertips in 2050,” she says, “but part of the infrastructure of any world-class city.”

3. Patent baby fish for food

A major local economic driver could be baby fish. Yes, baby fish. These aquatic babes are known as fingerlings, and they’re used in aquaponics: the combination of raising fish in tanks (aquaculture) and growing plants in water (hydroponics). This closed-loop system cycles dirty water from the fish tanks to the plants, which clean the water. “The vegetables grow in half the time because of the nutrients,” Milwaukee Water Council Executive Director Dean Amhaus says. The water is then looped back into the fish tanks, and the process begins again.

Optimizing fingerlings for this system is under development. One organization doing so is the Great Lakes WATER Institute, where Rick Goetz is working to create yellow perch that produce offspring that grow larger and faster. Milwaukee’s unique collaborative ecosystem allows for research and development. The School of Freshwater Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee experiments with different methods, and local organizations – such as Growing Power and Sweet Water Organics – take that research to the actual application.

The fingerlings could be patented and sold, similar to Monsanto’s genetically modified corn seeds, though Amhaus hopes the methods would be less controversial than the biotech giant’s contentious history in the U.S. and abroad. Monsanto creates the seed, then ships it out to farmers to grow, harvest and ultimately sell the corn. “It’s very much the same thing,” Amhaus says. “Those fingerlings are just seeds.”

4. Become the world water hub

In 2008, after the Milwaukee Water Council’s first water summit, the team developed hypothetical editions of Time magazine as part of a visioning exercise. One cover slated for the year 2013 had Milwaukee labeled “America’s H2O HQ.” “We were there two years ago,” Amhaus says.

Although Milwaukee has yet to be crowned the king of water, it’s certainly “at the high court,” he says, adding that it’s a common misconception that the amount of water Milwaukee has is the impetus for the title. That’s just not true. “The work that’s being done is not because we have a lot of water; the work is being done because we’re trying to improve the water that we do have.” 

A lot of that work focuses on high-level research, but the fruits of that labor could also help Milwaukee regain its manufacturing foothold. “Right now, most of the nation’s water heaters, meters, fixtures and pumps come out of this region,” says Rich Meeusen, CEO of Badger Meter. “The new advanced technologies that are going to be needed to address the coming water shortage should also come out of this region. I think we’re doing the right things now to plant those seeds.”

One project in the works at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is developing microbial fuel cells, which generate energy while cleaning wastewater. Assistant professor Jason He added saltwater into the process, and it desalinated the water. The water is not potable but can be used for agriculture.
Milwaukee also needs increased collaboration to claim the throne, which is something the Water Council is working on with its soon-to-open Accelerator Center in Walker’s Point. Amhaus’ hope is that once the federal government aligns itself around water security – as he believes it will have to – and begins to dole out money and resources, Milwaukee will be first on the list. “If the federal government is going to do that, it should be done in Milwaukee,” he says.

5. Build high-speed rail to Chicago

“I have affectionately referred to Chicago as one of our finest suburbs,” Barrett says. 

The idea of Milwaukee joining the Chicago Megacity is not new, but it sure has staying power, despite little progress.

“It’s certainly a card that we have to pay attention to,” says Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “We have to get much more specific on what that means. It needs to be brought to the ground in terms of collaboration on what. That’s where I can see the rail connection as a tangible way to do that. If we do it, that will connect our economies.”

Connecting Chicago’s $532.3 billion economy with Milwaukee’s $84.6 billion economy could mean jobs – there are more than 500,000 total jobs within two miles of Chicago’s Union Station. “I see this allowing companies to have a global presence,” Sheehy says. “They could attract people who want to live in Chicago and work in Milwaukee and vice versa. But I also see this as a doorway for being able to connect us to the rest of the world.”

For that to happen, Sheehy wants to get to downtown Chicago in under an hour. The current Amtrak route, which operates at an average speed of 58 mph, takes 89 minutes. High-speed rail could fix that. If high-speed trains traveled at 110 mph, the trip would be reduced to just over an hour; at 150 mph, it drops to 50 minutes; and at 220 mph, down to just 40 minutes. 

The only high-speed rail in the country is in the Northeast corridor. The trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. – on which trains operate at average speeds of 84 mph and top speeds of 150 mph – takes two hours and 40 minutes. A recently announced $151 billion improvement plan seeks to raise top speeds to 220 mph and reduce the trip to 94 minutes.

The potential is definitely here: The Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha route is the busiest Amtrak route in the Midwest and the eighth-busiest in the country. Plus, the route set a ridership record in 2011, surpassing 800,000 rides for the first time in its 23-year history.

6. Create a multimodal transportation system

“A world-class city just cannot rely on the automobile,” says Ralph Hollmon, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Urban League. “You have to have multiple modes of transportation to get people to and from in an efficient and effective manner.” This network could include the current bus system, the proposed streetcar, light rail and commuter rail.

The current bus system operated by the Milwaukee County Transit System is funded by local property taxes, state money, federal contributions and passenger fares. But that balance is in jeopardy. A county report released this year found that to retain current service levels, the tax base would have to increase from $19 million to $48 million in 2017. If no additional tax support is added, service hours will fall by 19-29 percent.

Milwaukee is one of the few big cities lacking a dedicated local funding source. Portland’s system, which ranks high among public transit systems, has dedicated local funding in the form of a payroll tax (0.006218 percent) as well as property and cigarette taxes. Another top system in Denver has a dedicated sales tax of 0.6 percent. 

For local context, consider this: A 2008 referendum would have increased the county sales tax 1 percent and generated an estimated $130 million for public services, including transit. Although voters passed the measure, it was never enacted.

7. Become a European-style bicycle city

Milwaukee’s bicycle community is inevitably compared to Madison’s, but Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center, eyes Europe for inspiration: “In 50 years, it would be great if we could look like Amsterdam.” That would mean a large percentage of workers commuting on bicycles and parking facilities for bikes, among other improvements.

Although the number of bicycle commuters in the city has doubled since 2000, just 0.7 percent of Milwaukeeans bike to work, compared to about 6 percent of commuters in Madison. “We’re going in the right direction,” historian John Gurda says.
Madison started implementing bike boxes at intersections after a “fact-finding” trip to Europe, where they’re more common. They let bicyclists move in front of cars stopped at a red light, which makes turning easier and reduces collisions between motorists and cyclists.

The local biking community points to strides made in the past few years – the raised bike lane in Bay View, the addition of 76 bike lane miles and bike-sharing test events. But they also emphasize setbacks – a decreased bicycle infrastructure budget and a decision to not include bike lanes and pedestrian access in the Hoan Bridge reconstruction. 

Key infrastructure improvements must occur to elevate Milwaukee to Madison’s level – or even higher. Those include community bikes, bike-locking facilities, bike boxes and relocating bike lanes. Right now, the bike lanes essentially protect parked cars, which is “ridiculous,” says Ian Abston, president and founder of NEWaukee, who adds that bike lanes should be moved between parked cars and curbs. This is known as cycletrack and is common in Europe. 

But making Milwaukee more bike-friendly really comes down to cyclists themselves, says Steve Roche, founder of the Underwear Bike Ride. “To have a strong presence of people getting out on the streets and riding, that’s the strongest thing an individual can do.”

8. Offer universal early education

Thornton likens education to a race. When kids run behind in a race, they get discouraged and quit. Part of the solution, he says, is to “bring the kids to the starting line on the same page.” The way to do that is through early childhood education. “Start early,” says Hollmon of the Milwaukee Urban League. “That is one of the critical pieces to education.”

Starting early is particularly crucial with low-income students. “You’re not getting highly educated people who have all the stimulation for their children at home,” says Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the United Community Center. 

And Thornton agrees. “Our communities are not created equally. The only way to mitigate that is through quality education, early childhood education for all kids. There are some communities where kids get wonderful, rigorous education. However, there are some communities that are not as fortunate.”

In the mid-’60s, the landmark 40-year High/Scope Perry Preschool study randomly assigned 123 low-income, African-American children to either the high-quality Perry Preschool or another program in Michigan. The results were remarkable: The Perry education more than doubled school readiness by age 5 (67 vs. 38 percent), increased high school graduation rates (77 vs. 60 percent) and increased the likelihood of earning $20,000 or more a year (60 vs. 40 percent).

9. Pay teachers for performance

Pay for performance just got a whole lot more controversial. Chicago Public Schools’ teachers went on strike in September, and just a few days later, a Dane County judge ruled Wisconsin’s Act 10 unconstitutional. That bill dissolved collective bargaining rights, and things that had never been up for negotiation before – like teacher pay – were suddenly on the table.

This forced many Wisconsin school districts to take a hard look at paying teachers for performance. Waukesha’s Hartland-Lakeside District’s new compensation system – based on performance evaluations and evidence of achievement – was piloted on a voluntary basis in 2012 and will become mandatory in the 2015 school year. Pay will be based on meeting criteria, such as national board certification, in a tiered system. Teachers can move up or down the ladder by presenting evidence to a panel.

Thornton is taking notes, though he says proponents of a straightforward pay-for-performance plan haven’t talked to as many teachers as he has. “Teachers are asking for career ladders in the profession,” he says. Using a federal grant, MPS would provide incentives to teachers who are not only doing a good job (measured by a performance framework as well as student growth) but are also taking on additional leadership roles. This, he says, is a collegial way to drive the profession.

The ruling on Act 10 could put these programs in jeopardy. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is preparing an appeal, and the actual effect of the ruling might not be known for some time. (But remember, the point here is to look beyond day-to-day politics.) 

Either way, Sheehy says Milwaukee has a significant head start on other cities because of its school choice program. “We’ve got to tweak the model,” he says, “but if you’re a parent in the city of Milwaukee, you have more choices today for educating your kid than any American city.”

Teachers, however, can’t control which students walk into their classrooms, a criticism of the pay-for-performance system. Diaz has an idea: Treat teaching in low-performing and low-income schools similar to working the third shift. Oftentimes, third-shift workers are paid a slightly higher rate.

10. Cut the 12th grade

Gregory Thornton

Late this summer, Meeusen was visiting one of his factories in a small town just south of Stuttgart, Germany. (“Stuttgart is as much like Milwaukee as any other city on earth,” Meeusen says.) Stuttgart has a strong manufacturing backbone, but Meeusen noticed something different on his trip. “Stuttgart does a very good job of making sure their children are interested in manufacturing.” 

When he was there, the small town was holding an industrial fair, which it does every three years. Families bring their children to the factories to see the machines run, eat and watch clowns. “On my flight back from there, that’s all I could think about,” Meeusen says. “Milwaukee doesn’t do that. In Milwaukee, the factory is this dark, mysterious place.”

That mystery adds to the perception that working in a factory is a dirty job, he says. But the bottom line is that Milwaukee needs people to fill manufacturing positions. “In wanting the best for all of our children, we have decided that every child needs the opportunity to go to college,” Meeusen says. “And that sounds really nice, but every child shouldn’t go to college. Who’s going to run our machines?”

It’s a compelling argument, especially as the current system fails to prove successful for all of its students. The four-year graduation rate for those who entered the University of Wisconsin System in fall 2006 was just 30 percent; the five-year rate was 58.3 percent. At UW-Milwaukee, the four-year rate was even lower at 15.5 percent; the five-year rate 39 percent. 

For many, Meeusen says, a two-year technical degree would be better. “We need to find a way to fix that so that by 2050, Milwaukee is still the machine shop of the United States, the manufacturing backbone,” he says. “That’s extremely important.”

Thornton thinks he has a way: Cut the 12th grade. That time would serve as a “career and college exploration transition year.” These young adults would embark on apprenticeship and internship programs, similar to those in Germany. Badger Meter offers paid internships, though the program was started through the Water Council just two years ago. “I think we need all the companies in Milwaukee to be doing more of that,” Meeusen says.

Arguably even more ambitious, Walker wants students picking a career earlier, by fifth or sixth grade. “By then, you’ll see kids already figuring out what career choices they want,” he says. “And then we’ll be plugging them in on a track.”

11. Get 50,000 kids in low-income, high-performing schools

Sheehy would love to say we could break the cycle of poverty and be educating a group of diverse, wealthy students by 2050. But he can’t. “The kids we’re going to have on this path to 2050 are low-income, minority, so we’ve got to be able to have schools that excel at doing that,” he says.

Schools that Can Milwaukee, an educational network, set a goal to get 20,000 kids in low-income, high-performing schools by the year 2020. Sheehy wants to see 50,000 by 2050. A school qualifies as low-income if at least 60 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch; high-performing if 75 percent score proficient or advanced on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination or the ACT for high school students. In 2012, there were 2,238 students in schools that met that criteria. 

Sheehy says the way to do that is to move from a traditional model of schools to an open-source, competitive model – one where resources and access are divided equally, schools are accountable, quality defines a school, and collaboration among education providers is rampant. One such format is the Rocketship chain of charter schools that’s set to enter Milwaukee in fall 2013. It hopes to open eight schools by 2017 and serve up to 4,000 kids. “If we could replicate that success – and I don’t mean just that school – across the city, we’d have a fighting chance in 2050,” says Sheehy.

12. Market Milwaukee as a college town

Scott Walker

Milwaukee is already a college town, but few see it that way, says Mary J. Meehan, the Alverno College president who holds a doctorate from Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “I think for people to see it, it means people are talking about it,” she says. “Clearly, we need to do better.” 

Part of talking about it is marketing the city. And currently, “Milwaukee in general doesn’t market itself as well as it could,” says UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mike Lovell. 

A change in how people view Milwaukee would benefit the city more than the schools themselves, Meehan says. “When people view a city as a college town, it really does spark the economy,” she says, adding that the moniker projects the city as a desirable place to live and would help with talent attraction and retention.

Part of the equation is increasing the prominence of the city’s biggest school, UWM, which is already educating more Wisconsinites than UW-Madison (26,457 compared to 23,861 in 2011-12). “I think you’re going to see UWM take a much higher profile in academic research and better align with the flagship university in Madison,” Walker says. 

At UWM, research output has already doubled in the past 10 years, Lovell says, and he wants to see that trend continue at least through 2050.

13. Make infant mortality a non-issue

If a city’s quality of life is reflected in its children, “we’re failing pretty miserably,” says Mary Lou Young, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Milwaukee. One of those failing grades is in infant mortality. Milwaukee consistently tops lists of the worst rates, and in some areas of the city, the rate is comparable to third world countries.

Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact for United Way of Greater Milwaukee, says it’s naive to think we’ll have eradicated infant mortality by 2050, but we can make it a non-issue. “We wouldn’t be making top-10 – or bottom-10 – lists,” Angresano says.

She points to the city’s success in reducing teen pregnancy rates – a drop of more than 30 percent in four years – as an example. The program brought together the community in an “unwavering focus,” she says, and the effort is now a model for other cities. “We want that same dialogue to happen around infant mortality.” 
Barrett pledged to reduce the black infant mortality rate by 15 percent and the overall rate by 10 percent by 2017. And BMO Harris recently announced a donation of $750,000 over the next three years to the United Way of Greater Milwaukee that’s earmarked to fight infant mortality.

More collaboration like this is needed, Angresano says. “One of the keys is a willingness to entertain and fund a diverse array of approaches. It’s not a one-size-fits-all problem.”

14. Source 10 percent of food locally

Less than 1 percent of Milwaukee’s food is local, Growing Power’s Will Allen says. He wants to up that to 10 percent. Part of the solution, he says, is a five-story, $12 million vertical farm. The city has approved construction of the structure, which would grow food, raise fish, conduct classes in teaching kitchens and sell fresh produce. 

Leinbach, of the Urban Ecology Center, wants fresh produce integrated into everyday life. “Every neighborhood should have some urban gardens and should also have urban ecology centers,” he says, “just like they have a branch library.”

This will help people understand their place in the greater ecosystem. “I’m always saying that it’s not just food for humans,” Leinbach says. “We’re supporting an entire ecosystem here. It’s about naturalizing land for the benefit of all the citizens that live within the city.”

15. Analyze everyone’s genome

In 2050, no one will suddenly have a heart attack, says Dr. Howard Jacob, the director of the Human and Molecular Genetics Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. If a person is at risk for a heart attack, he or she will have a chip implanted into the coronary artery to monitor blood flow. If the chip senses a decrease in flow, it will call an ambulance. 

“The vision is that the day you’re born, your genome is read, and it is compared against a database of everybody else who has been sequenced,” Jacob says. This information will predict what disease you’re likely to develop and when.

This technology is available now, Jacob says, but it is too costly for wide use. The Medical College is one of the first to offer personalized genome analysis and is in a unique position to see it as a business opportunity, he says. As the general health care world shifts from illness to wellness, such services will be in demand. 

“Right now, health care payment isn’t value-based, it’s based on volume,” says Dr. John Raymond, president and CEO of the Medical College. The more procedures doctors do, the more tests they run, the more they are reimbursed. “Something more rational would reward health care systems for encouraging wellness, for minimizing the need for drastic, high-intensity treatments that are required when people become very ill.”

Although this is a national trend, the partnerships among medical academic institutions, and collaboration among health care organizations and employers in Milwaukee will serve us well, says Dr. Jeff Smith, the chief operating officer at Aurora Health Care. “We’re fortunate that we have strong health systems in our area, strong academic partnerships that continue to drive innovation.”

16. Create a made-in-Wisconsin retail district

“The only thing that I see right now that is lacking in the city of Milwaukee is the retail,” says Amhaus of the Milwaukee Water Council. “Any great city has great retail.” 

But it’s not as easy as luring big-box retailers, says Leah Fiasca, a project director at the Greater Milwaukee Committee. “I think it has to be the right retail, and I don’t think we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re going to be able to support Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue all on one street,” she says. “What I think would work is unique and local.” 

There’s already a group of Milwaukeeans who will pay for unique and local, Fiasca says. To take advantage of that demand – and create much-needed Downtown retail – Fiasca and others at the GMC are advocating for a retail district dedicated to one-of-a-kind products made in Wisconsin. Taylor points to Portland, Ore., as a city that has the local retail puzzle figured out. A Portland-based nonprofit has even developed a local currency system designed to keep money within the local economy. Another organization, Choose Local, partnered with a credit union to offer a Visa card with incentives for local purchases.

“Hyperlocal also encourages pride in the city,” says Danya Strait, communications and event coordinator for the Greater Milwaukee Committee. “That is something that is blossoming here and will continue.”

17. Turn Park East into an arts and entertainment district

More than 10 years ago, then-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist had a big idea: Demolish the Park East Freeway. Since then, development in the area has been slow, but Ald. Terry Witkowski has a plan that would include renovating the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

In May, he penned a statement encouraging the creation of a multiuse center with residences, offices, retail and restaurants. “It would be a waste of space and opportunity to dedicate a large chunk of the Park East Corridor land only to a basketball arena and parking,” he wrote. 

Taylor hopes for even more. “I’d like to see that it is an anchor of a Downtown cultural district.” She envisions a mixed-used development with residences, retail, restaurants, museums and galleries. She even predicts a new building will display the Sydney Hih letters, which were removed from the complex before it was demolished this summer.

Mitzi Keel, manager of development and community partnerships at Teach for America in Milwaukee, points to the Power & Light District in Kansas City, a mixed-use, nine-block development with restaurants, shops and bars. The privately developed district is located next to the downtown Sprint Center, which the city hopes to use to attract an NBA team. Although the development has revitalized the downtown area, the sales tax intended to repay the city-issued bonds that funded the project has fallen short of projections. The city agreed to pick up the difference: an estimated $12.8 million in 2013. 

A slightly different approach might work better for Milwaukee. Developing arts and entertainment districts is “a very organic process of development,” says Dan Keegan, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. “I’m very interested in the smaller startup, entrepreneurial arts and culture community, and how it gets a foothold and where it gets a foothold.” The key is affordability, he says. Communities can nurture these endeavors through affordable housing, incubators and grants. “Artists are businesspeople, too.”

18. Transform arts and culture institutions into community meeting places

Technology allows people to be more connected than ever, but that will “point to a counter need for more physical interaction among human beings,” Keegan says. Cultural institutions, such as the Milwaukee Art Museum, are “well positioned” to do just that, he says. 

Providing that physical space for building human relationships is important, adds SysLogic’s Chang. But institutions will have to adapt. “I think our current art spaces are amazing spaces for some of the population,” Chang says. For these institutions to fill the role of community meeting places in the technology age, they need to be welcoming to everyone, she adds. Even feeling the need to be dressed up when going to a space can discourage some people from visiting.

That’s an item on Keegan’s to-do list for the MAM, and one he hopes is on the lists of other cultural institutions as well. “It’s been very deliberate on our part, frankly, to open the conversation around diversity and inclusiveness.”

19. Develop the lakefront

NEWaukee President Ian Abston knows this might garner a heated response, but he stands by it: “I’d love to see the lakefront developed with shops,” he says. But don’t get him wrong, he doesn’t want Starbucks (“I hate Starbucks,” he says.) or anything on the level of Chicago’s lakefront, but rather locally owned shops and restaurants – similar to the kite shop in Veteran’s Park, the concession stand at Bradford Beach and Estabrook Park’s new beer garden.

He sees this as a way to generate more money as well as keep people in the parks. “I know the county is always looking for funding, and I think that is one of the ways to do that.”

Gurda says the lakefront looked completely different decades ago. The addition of the Calatrava, the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and Discovery World has strengthened the area. “The lakefront is a cultural theme park,” Gurda says. “That’s something that has emerged in the last 38 years and can only get better in the next 38.”

20. Create a reclaimed materials marketplace

There are two challenges facing those who want to use recycled and reclaimed materials, says the Urban Ecology Center’s Leinbach. The first is that the materials are not always easy to get, and the second is that they aren’t easy to get in time. The solution, he says, is to create a marketplace in the city for such materials. 

“It makes sense to have a much better infrastructure of preserving viable products from the waste stream,” he says. Leinbach envisions something similar to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. But “on steroids,” he says, an infrastructure larger than South Milwaukee’s IM Salvage, which sells reclaimed building supplies, machinery and lumber out of its warehouse. It could function in tandem with waste management efforts in the city and possibly function with taxpayer money. “We’re paying taxes to haul waste a gazillion miles out to some place, so I would prefer to be paying taxes to not have the waste,” he says. “I think it’s worth paying taxes for.” But, he adds, the marketplace could also be privatized.

21. Keep the Bucks

Most city leaders agree the Bucks need to stay in Milwaukee, and the solution seems simple. 

“We have to do something about the Bradley Center,” says businessman and benefactor Sheldon Lubar. 

The arena is one of the oldest in the NBA and has one-third the square footage of most. But the stadium still contributes to the city’s economy, and losing the Bucks would hurt. The Bucks average about 15,000 per game in paid attendance for 41 home games per season. “Losing those 600,000 people a year would be devastating to our Downtown,” says Paul Upchurch, president of Visit Milwaukee. “It would be devastating to our hospitality community.” That community, he says, includes 47,500 jobs and $1.42 billion in annual wages.

What’s not simple is how to fund an improvement. The Bradley Center’s original $90 million price tag was largely paid for through a gift from Jane and Lloyd Pettit in memory of her father, Harry Lynde Bradley. Recent sponsorship deals with BMO Harris, Harley-Davidson, Kohl’s, Northwestern Mutual, Rockwell Automation and other companies netted $18 million, which will help maintain the arena over the next six years and extend its shelf life. Owner Herb Kohl has agreed to contribute, though he hasn’t said how much. (He gave $25 million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to build the Kohl Center in 1995.) Just renovating the newly christened BMO Harris Bradley Center, not rebuilding it, could cost up to $250 million.

The Bradley Center’s name and legacy still inspires a certain pride in Milwaukeeans, and Fiasca says tearing down the arena wouldn’t diminish that. “I don’t think the physicality of it is as important as much as recognizing what the Bradley Center has given us,” she says. She suggests the Bradley name could be given to the new arena, or even to a larger entertainment district surrounding the arena.



Abby Callard was an assistant editor at Milwaukee Magazine from 2012-2014. Her journalistic pursuits have seen her covering the Hispanic community in mid-Missouri, politics in Washington, D.C., art and culture for Smithsonian magazine, the social enterprise space in India and health care in Chicago. Abby has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.