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Toward the end of the mid-September luncheon at the Pfister’s Grand Ballroom, when most people sitting beneath the ornate chandeliers were sipping coffee or spooning chocolate dessert from their parfait glasses, Bud Selig walked to the podium. The audience of 400 had just listened to pronouncements that, without a doubt, deserved the front-page headlines they […]

Toward the end of the mid-September luncheon at the Pfister’s Grand Ballroom, when most people sitting beneath the ornate chandeliers were sipping coffee or spooning chocolate dessert from their parfait glasses, Bud Selig walked to the podium.

The audience of 400 had just listened to pronouncements that, without a doubt, deserved the front-page headlines they would get the next day. The Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), often referred to as Milwaukee’s movers and shakers, had publicly launched a campaign to promote business development in the central city as the best way to address the crushing poverty and joblessness in Milwaukee’s geo-graphic heart. And it wouldn’t be just white businessmen telling the central city how to improve. An African American and a woman – Art Smith, president of Keystone Travel Services, and Katherine Hudson, chair of the Brady Corporation – were GMC co-chairs of the project.

The business-dominated audience liked what it heard. Harvard University business professor Michael Porter, who has spearheaded similar campaigns in cities such as St. Louis and Louisville, emphasized that Milwaukee needed an economic strategy based “not on hope and charity but on the marketplace.” The private sector, realizing that the city is a good place to do business, would lead. Government would take a backseat. Entrepreneurial attitudes of confidence and a can-do spirit would be essential, and there was to be no more of that hangdog attitude that characterizes Milwaukee’s self-image.

The project, the most ambitious GMC undertaking in years, even had a name in sync with its marketplace orientation: Initiative for a Competitive Milwaukee, or ICM.

But more than a few heads turned quizzically when Selig, Milwaukee Brewers titan, baseball commissioner and quintessential member of Milwaukee’s old-boy network, stood to speak. Here was Selig – who refused to put his stadium Downtown even though it would have immeasurably bolstered the city’s economy and who received hundreds of millions in public dollars to build the new stadium – extolling the business potential of what he warmly described as “the people, the land, the resources of the central city.”

What to do with the mixed messages? Which approach was the bottom line – Porter’s emphasis on private business and the marketplace or the tacit acknowledgement, as seen in Miller Park and in the references to the Menomonee Valley as ripe for development, that public dollars are an essential component of economic growth? And if tax dollars are involved, what will be the mechanisms for public input and accountability? Equally important, what is the proper role of private organizations such as the GMC in developing public policy so that the democratic input of less powerful groups is not compromised?

Welcome to the Greater Milwaukee Committee in all of its complexities and contradictions.

Formed in 1948 by the city’s captains of industry, the GMC comprises roughly 185 members, 65 to 75 percent of them business leaders and the others leaders in labor, education and the professions. Its mission is the civic, cultural and economic improvement of Milwaukee. Its traditional image has been of business leaders, inevitably men, making backroom deals to decide the city’s future. As Donald Schuenke, then-chief executive officer of Northwestern Mutual Life and then-GMC president said in a 1991 interview, decisions were made informally among a small group, “a cocktail here, a golf game there.”

The GMC mystique is grounded not only in the group’s power and exclusivity but also in its penchant for privacy. To this day, the membership list remains a closely guarded secret, and its members-only luncheons are held at the private University Club. You do not ask to join the GMC; you are invited.

Traditionally, the GMC emphasized “bricks and mortar” projects – freeways, museums, sports centers. But in recent years, it seemed to lose its way, unsure of its role as Milwaukee’s manufacturing base crumbled and the region underwent seismic social changes.

Racial and economic disparities grew between city and suburb as Milwaukee became a “majority minority” city in which whites now are outnumbered by African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans.

“The GMC was coasting,” says Sister Joel Read, a GMC member and retired president of Alverno College. “It was like the Rotary.” But, she adds, “the real issue is not where the GMC has been but where we’re going.”

When Robert Milbourne announced in June 2002 that after 17 years at the helm he was leaving to lead a similar group in Columbus, Ohio, the GMC used the transition to re-energize its direction and focus. In October, it hired Julia Taylor, 49, who’d led the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee since 1986. She became the GMC’s first woman president.

But that wasn’t all. The following February, 42-year-old Dan Bader of the Helen Bader Foundation began a two-year term as chair of the board. Suddenly, two relatively young people with nonprofit backgrounds formed the top leadership of a group that had always been controlled by the city’s biggest, most powerful and, more often than not, older corporate leaders.

“Dan Bader and Julia Taylor clearly bring an added dimension,” says Ralph Hollmon, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee Urban League. “They understand Downtown business, but they also understand neighborhood development and how the two have to blend together. I am very excited.”

Equally important, the GMC also embarked on an ambitious makeover, dedicating itself to diversity, collaboration, reinvigorated leadership with an emphasis on bringing in younger members and commitment to economic development in the central city.

“More than anything, the changes have been a call to action,” says Bader, who, like Taylor, lives on the East Side and is more likely to be found strolling along Downer Avenue than teeing off at a golf course. “The general feeling was that the GMC had to change its model of working within the community. There’s no longer a power elite that runs the city. What you’re seeing is the GMC reflecting the change in the community.”

Taylor likewise emphasizes the need for the GMC to not only become more internally diverse but to strengthen its ties with other groups. “Part of our focus is on collaboration,” she says. “For all of this to work, it can’t just be the GMC working on it. It takes a lot of other partners in the community.”

For all of its changes, however, the GMC remains firmly planted in its historical base. A 1991 Milwaukee Journal survey, the only one publicly available, found that 94 percent of the members were white men, two-thirds earned more than $200,000 a year, two out of three lived in the North Shore suburbs, 90 percent belonged to a private club and just 1 percent sent their children to a Milwaukee Public School. Most were 50 or older; the youngest was 40. While the racial makeup and demographics have undoubtedly changed, few dispute that the GMC remains dominated by white male powerbrokers.

Furthermore, while Taylor and Bader are currently the public face of the GMC, more traditional leaders have not necessarily stepped aside. Steven J. Smith, chairman of Journal Communications, is chair-elect and will take over from Bader in 2005.

Everyone would like to see the GMC succeed in its makeover. In a city and county wracked by scandal, the yearning for leadership is palpable. But results will not come easy or overnight, and success is by no means assured. The real test will be in the next five years when we see whether the GMC has not only embraced the perspectives of women, people of color and younger leaders but also helped resolve the area’s complicated social, racial and economic problems. Having set the central city’s economic health at the heart of its agenda, that is the issue upon which the GMC will be judged.

Getting a handle on the GMC is an exercise akin to the proverbial description of the elephant. What you think depends on whether you are touching the hairy hide, the smooth tusk or the swiftly moving trunk.

Marty Stein, Stein Optical founder, tireless board member of nonprofits and the epitome of the civic-minded businessman, is one of many bullish on the GMC’s direction.

“I want you to write the absolute best article you can,” he says, promptly responding to an interview request with a call from Nashville. “This is a new GMC.”

Later, when meeting at the Pfister Hotel coffee shop for an interview, he approaches with arms wide open. He gives hope that the GMC will be able to pull it off.

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Stein explains that over the 15 years or so he has been involved with the GMC, “little has been done other than the writing and publishing” of papers, reports and pamphlets. “Come Julia Taylor and Dan Bader,” he continues. “They opened up the doors and windows and said, ‘Let’s have some fresh wind blow through here and let’s talk about the issues facing our community.’ ”

But there are the inevitable cautions.

Jack Norman is a researcher at the progressive Institute for Wisconsin’s Future. A former Milwaukee Journal reporter who once covered the GMC, Norman wrote a history of the organization. He supports the GMC’s concerns about social issues but wonders whether it will push for the necessary steps.

“You can’t solve the city’s problems without huge changes, such as tax reform and government intervention and regulation, that are anathema to business,” he says. “If, for example, corporate executives aren’t willing to have companies pay their fair share of taxes, all the nice, do-good projects in the world won’t matter.” To bolster his case, he cites figures that corporations pay 4.6 percent of general-purpose revenue in Wisconsin, down from 11.3 percent in 1979.

The strongest criticisms of the GMC are off-the-record comments. In a city as small as Milwaukee, where the person you criticize one day might run into you the next, no one wants to antagonize someone unnecessarily, especially one of the power structure.

“You have a hypersegregated community,” says one source, who, while not a GMC member, travels in those circles. “You have an educational system moving relentlessly toward one for whites and one for people of color, you have housing segregation, you have a region failing economically. You have lots of reasons why we need to get our act together. But there is one ingredient that is missing. The powers that be have not been persuaded that it is necessary to change anything.”

The people on the GMC are comfortable in their personal and professional lives, he explains, and fundamental change might be threatening. “So the question arises,” he says: “Is the purpose of the GMC to try to accomplish meaningful change or to not accomplish change but try to make it look like you’re doing things?”

As is true with any powerful group, everybody wants something from the GMC. Former Mayor John Norquist complains that the GMC “has a very negative history with Milwaukee.” He wants them to get involved in infrastructure, especially mass transit, “but from a pro-urban side.”

In Waukesha, where parking lots are as abundant as they are scarce in Downtown Milwaukee, Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley disputes the notion that GMC policies have favored the suburbs. “It’s not like they fought to create an art museum in Waukesha County,” he notes. “The arts facilities are in Milwaukee, where they should be.” Not surprisingly, given Waukesha’s distance from Lake Michigan and the strain of development on its water supply, water is an issue he would like the GMC to take up.

In Milwaukee’s growing Hispanic community, Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the United Community Center, is clear in his rock-bottom demand. “Never mind the task forces,” he says. “There are Hispanic leaders who are ready for paid corporate boards. You bring these people on and you will see change.” (Agustin “Gus” Ramirez of HUSCO International Inc. in Waukesha seems to be the only Hispanic GMC member that anyone, including Taylor, can cite with certainty.)

Joseph Jackson Jr., pastor of Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church on 12th and Center streets and head of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, also has his wish list. He and other activists met with Taylor in June to gain the GMC’s support for a community- and labor-based push that development in the Park East area – the largest Downtown redevelopment project in decades – include affordable housing and family-supporting jobs targeted on local hiring. “When that freeway was built,” says Jackson, “lots of African-American homeowners, renters and businesses were dislodged. That community was torn apart.” But by late November, Jackson had not heard back from the GMC.

Norquist, Finley, Diaz and Jackson are, in their own spheres, all influential people. But the new GMC has made it clear it will control its own agenda and will not undertake initiatives without strong membership support. Some complain it is ducking the big issues, whether it’s Park East, the lack of affordable housing in the suburbs or ongoing cuts in the county’s bus system at a time when transportation is a key impediment for central city residents looking for work. Others say the GMC is merely being realistic in limiting the projects it can successfully manage.

“People need to realize the GMC can do a lot of things,” says Taylor, “but we also have to stay really focused. That is one thing the membership has said over and over again. Do two or three things and do them really well.”

After Milbourne announced his resignation, one of the questions the GMC confronted was whether it should continue to exist. Some suggested it merge with the MMAC (Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce), which, under the leadership of the highly capable Tim Sheehy and with an agenda more in tune with the conservative ethos of the 1980s and 1990s, had eclipsed the GMC as the go-to group to get things done.

“In the end, it was an easy decision not to merge,” recalls James Forbes, retired chief executive officer of Badger Meter Inc. and former GMC chair. “The MMAC represents business and also does a lot of lobbying. The GMC really tries to get a much broader representation of the community.”

Forbes, often cited as the behind-the-scenes person shaping the GMC’s new direction, says he was surprised when Milbourne resigned. “But it became apparent that this was an opportune time to look and see how the organization should be restructured,” he says.

Milbourne had a reputation for running the GMC out of his back pocket, with support of a few core members. When Taylor arrived, there was minimal organizational structure. A board of directors existed but didn’t meet. Membership responsibilities often meant little more than attending the monthly luncheon. There were no annual reports. Task forces issued research papers, but follow-up was haphazard. There wasn’t even a web site. (By mid-September, the GMC had put up a one-page site noting, “Welcome to the future web site of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.” Three months later, nothing had been added.)

The GMC also set up new structures, in particular a first-time executive committee of 19 of the most active members to guide decision-making. An associate membership category with two-year terms and reduced dues was set up to bring in emerging leaders under age 35. In keeping with the GMC’s history of caution, only five to 10 such slots are projected to be filled in coming years.

Perhaps most important, the GMC spent several months working with the membership to start fresh and develop a strategic plan. Those who were identified as leaders included a strong component of women: Hudson, who chaired the effort; Mary Ellen Stanek, chief investment officer of Baird Advisors; and Nancy Zimpher, then-chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The strategic plan unveiled in June set four priorities: economic development, education, effective government, and the arts, sports and entertainment. Each priority will develop a major project in coming years.

The ICM initiative will be the GMC focus for economic development, with the Bader Foundation providing $300,000 over three years and We Energies paying for an executive position for three years. (In what can only be described as a discordant counterpoint to the ICM initiative, however, the GMC is also spearheading an effort to bring high-end women’s fashion boutiques to Milwaukee Street in Downtown; that effort is being co-chaired by Wendy Selig-Prieb, chair of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Madeleine Lubar, wife of Milwaukee investor David Lubar.)

The GMC also adopted a more collaborative approach. On some projects, it will take the lead; in others, it’ll work with groups like the MMAC or Public Policy Forum; in others, it’ll merely give a stamp of approval. For example, the MMAC is taking the lead on infrastructure and transportation issues. The Public Policy Forum is heading up the Campaign for a Strong Regional Future.

One of the more interesting changes is the GMC’s commitment to diversity, what Taylor refers to as diversity in the “front and center” of all of its activities. She cites the newly developed GMC vision statement: “Our vision is to make the Milwaukee metro area the best community to live, learn, work and play for everyone – a community that embraces, celebrates and practices diversity.”

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Fuel Cafe in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood is not the usual venue for an interview with a GMC member. But John Goldstein, president of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, isn’t your typical GMC member. “I’m seen as the labor guy who doesn’t play along,” he says with a laugh.

During the interview, the subject turns to diversity, and Goldstein shakes his head in frustration. “When the GMC talks about diversity, it’s within a very narrow framework,” he says. “Yes, they want women and minorities but only people who are well connected and rich. And if everyone has the same opinion and comes from the same socioeconomic group, then diversity is just a smokescreen.”

What about labor’s involvement? Goldstein rolls his eyes in amusement and says he has no illusions about who truly holds power in the GMC. “The GMC is not representative of this community, even if it does include a few labor bureaucrats,” he says.

Paul Schmitz, 34, founder and head of Public Allies, a national group funded by AmeriCorps to develop community leaders, is the type of young leader the GMC hopes to attract. Schmitz also advocates for a broad definition of diversity, one that does more than bring a few new voices into the GMC.

“Very few business leaders are connected to the Milwaukee community, and they don’t have mechanisms to allow them to understand various community perspectives,” says Schmitz. “GMC members wouldn’t market a new product with as little information about the potential customer base as they do when making decisions about the city.”

At the same time, Schmitz sympathizes with the GMC’s dilemma. If it becomes too focused on diversity and too community oriented, it may get too far ahead of its membership. “The challenge for the GMC,” he notes, “is how to become more inclusive while maintaining the power that comes from having the heads of major corporations and foundations. The effort to bring in younger people has to be balanced with not diluting the power of the group.”

Milbourne, in a telephone interview from Columbus, voices a similar concern. “You do not want to, and you cannot, lose those very significant companies that are part of the organization,” he says. “In Milwaukee, there are six, seven, eight companies that you cannot afford to lose as your civic leadership.” (He cites We Energies, Northwestern Mutual Life, Johnson Controls, Harley-Davidson, Miller Brewing, Briggs & Stratton, Journal Communications and M&I Bank.)

Which brings up another challenge. What if there is a clash between a civic and business agenda, between the perspectives of a more community-oriented grouping and the corporate power base? Thus far, the tension has been resolved by sidestepping issues that might split the membership.

Jean Tyler, a former head of the Public Policy Forum, one of the city’s leading states-women on policy issues and current chair of the YWCA board, is curious about how the GMC will expand its community and civic agendas “and not run into conflict with its business agenda. I would think that’s a central question it is facing.” Will there be a time, she wonders, when the GMC will decide to focus on “a group of civic-minded businesspeople, which would mean a more selective business group?”

Marc Levine, director of UWM’s Center for Economic Development, chuckles when he’s asked for an interview about the GMC. “Ah yes, my favorite group,” he says sarcastically. Levine writes reports that make business leaders cringe. For example: an examination of the “stealth depression” in the central city, where 56 percent of working-age males are unemployed or not in the labor force. Or how income soared 37 percent in Ozaukee County, 21 percent in Waukesha County and 17 percent in Washington County during the 1990s, while declining in Milwaukee’s central city neighborhoods.

“You can’t just say what’s good for business is good for the city when corporate leaders have been contributing to the city’s economic decline by moving their jobs and their companies out of the city,” says Levine.

Regardless of public pronouncements, Levine adds, “the true lesson of inner city development is that there needs to be substantial investment of public dollars.” He cites the Menomonee Valley as an example.

“The notion that the revitalization of the valley is a business-driven renaissance is ridiculous,” he says. “You have numerous nonprofits involved, from the Sixteenth Street Health Clinic to the Menomonee Valley Partners, and substantial public money.”

The city and state, for instance, are putting more than $20 million into upgrading West Canal Street. The city is also to spend $16 million on environmental cleanup and infrastructure improvements for a business park in the western end of the valley, on top of $3 million in state and federal grants.

Despite his criticisms, Levine acknowledges that the GMC’s influence is essential to ameliorating regional disparities and resolving the “spatial mismatch” in which job growth is concentrated in the suburbs while the largest pool of labor lives in the central city.

“There’s no way we can get reasonable regional policies without a major mobilization either by the GMC or some other corporate body,” says Levine.

Some argue that the GMC’s increasingly smooth working relationship with the MMAC eases the contradiction between civic and business priorities. Civic projects on which everyone can agree can go through the GMC, while more controversial business positions can be promoted through the MMAC. Because the MMAC is not bound by nonprofit status, it can openly advocate in the legislative and political arena for a pro-business position on policy issues, whether school vouchers, corporate taxes or government deregulation.

Take the example of school vouchers. Sheehy worked to expand the program to include religious schools in the mid-1990s, reaching out to prominent civic groups such as the GMC and asking them to either publicly support vouchers or remain silent on the issue. Meanwhile, the GMC focused its own education work on the $50 million Bradley Tech High School that opened a year ago, made possible by a $20 million donation from the late Jane Pettit. Several people said Milbourne worked closely with Pettit on the initiative and fought for the school to remain within the public system.

Sheehy, who says he has met more with Taylor in six months than he did with Milbourne in 10 years, bristles at the suggestion that the GMC and MMAC may be working out a “good cop/bad cop” approach.

“I don’t like the imagery that we’re a bad cop,” he says. “I think there are honest disagreements on how best to reach goals of economic prosperity. And I think we’re always prone to having a bit rougher edge because we’re out there publicly on the policy issues.”

The MMAC has the luxury of clarity of purpose, Sheehy admits. It is a business group, pure and simple. “At the same time,” he adds, “the GMC is a good place to get consensus from various groups on a complicated issue.”

For her part, Taylor is confident the GMC will rise to the occasion and truly confront the complicated problems in the city and region. “I haven’t seen people shrink away from discussing the hard issues in the GMC,” she says. “People want answers. They want solutions. And they know they have a role to play in those solutions.”

No one questions that the GMC has some of the best minds in the city, the most powerful connections and deepest pocketbooks. Ten years from now, will the Milwaukee region be a better place for all of its residents – including those in the central city – to work, own a home, raise a family and realize the American dream of economic prosperity?

“There’s no doubt the GMC has the capacity to accomplish some interesting things,” says Jeff Browne, president of Public Policy Forum. “And the leadership has a new level of energy that could make things happen.”

In the final analysis, however, only time will tell. As Jean Tyler says, articulating a common theme, “The GMC is facing daunting yet exhilarating challenges. But the jury is still out. I don’t know how it could be otherwise.”

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist and columnist for the educational newspaper, Rethinking Schools.

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