This article first appeared in the May 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
By Marc Eisen
In search of a better life, my parents decamped from Chicago in 1953 to 16 acres in rural Kenosha County near what is now I-94. I lived a happily hayseed childhood replete with a drafty old farmhouse, a barn, and a menagerie of farm animals and dogs.
My dad, who had been a two-fisted Maxwell Street saloon keeper, was not a gentleman farmer. He wound up working in a warehouse in Skokie, Ill., and commuted at breakneck speed for 25-plus years. (Thanks to a talismanic bumper sticker, “Police Deserve a Teamster Contract,” the cops let him fly by.)
Looking back, I can see that my parents were pioneers, part of that first wave of Windy City expats who moved north of the border but remained tethered to Chicago’s economy. Decades later, Kenosha County is counted in Chicago’s statistical metropolitan area; its biggest for-profit employer, tellingly, is Illinois’ Abbott Laboratories near Waukegan.
And not far from where I once fished for carp and bullhead in the Des Plaines River, the corn and cabbage fields are long gone, replaced by the LakeView Corporate Park. Its 75 companies employ 7,500 people and occupy 10 million square feet of warehouses and offices, according to LakeView’s president, Jerry Franke.
More than half of the companies relocated from Illinois.
“It’s all about transportation,” Franke says of the park’s I-94 location. “When we started here in 1988, LakeView was between two major urban areas [Chicago and Milwaukee], and now we’re in the middle of one big one.”
That brings us to Gov. Scott Walker, who earlier this year ripped into Illinois’ tax hikes and entreated flatlander businesses to “Escape to Wisconsin,” where he had just lowered business taxes.
It made for great theater, but also showed Walker’s cluelessness. He failed to grasp the essential fact of the southeastern Wisconsin economy: Chicago is not its competition. Chicago is its ticket to future prosperity.
As for Walker’s ballyhooed tax changes, “The Wisconsin tax differential is just not significant enough to be the sole or even a leading factor in the decision to relocate,” Franke says. Illinois businesses came north, he says, because of LakeView’s “dynamic location” – proximity to greater Chicago, superb transportation connections and cheap land.
If Franke had his way, the state would double down on the corridor’s transportation advantages. He would kick-start planning for the moribund KRM commuter rail, which would connect with Chicago’s Metra system. He would add more cars to Amtrak’s morning runs from Milwaukee to Chicago and add later trains at night.
The connectivity message also came through loud and clear from Paul Purcell, head of Robert W. Baird and Co. With almost 1,100 workers in Milwaukee and more than 200 in Chicago, the financial firm is the poster boy for strengthening ties between the two cities.
Purcell calls himself “a very strong proponent of a high-speed rail connection between Milwaukee and Chicago.” Baird employees and top executives live up and down the corridor, traveling daily to either city, Purcell says. He resides in Hinsdale, west of Chicago, and commutes two or three days a week to the Milwaukee headquarters.
For Purcell, the notion that Milwaukee and Wisconsin compete with Chicago and Illinois is just wrong. “The people you compete with are on the East and West coasts and in Europe and China,” he says.
Richard Longworth, author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, was even more emphatic. Wisconsin and Illinois competing for business “is like two firemen fighting over the same hose while the house burns down,” he says. “The real competition is 10,000 miles away.”
The odd thing is that, as Milwaukee County executive, Walker seemed to understand. “We should be embracing our proximity to Chicago as a megacity,” he told this magazine in 2008. Walker surely knew the county-run General Mitchell International Airport has had year after year of higher traffic and revenue as it attracts ever more Chicagoland customers.
But January found Walker taunting Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn over taxes. He sounded like the usual blindered politician who sees economic development as a zero-sum game.
Walker doesn’t get what former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, now a Chicago resident, told me about the big-time payoff of adding more trains to Amtrak’s Hiawatha line. “There would be a lot more people with Chicago incomes living in Milwaukee.”
Chicago is a world-class economic dynamo specializing in business services. It’s now No. 6 in Foreign Policy magazine’s Global Cities Index, behind New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong.
The almost 12 million people in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor qualify for the UN’s definition of a “global megacity,” according to land-use consultants Vandewalle and Associates. They note the Chi-Mil corridor packs 36 Fortune 500 companies, three international airports and more than 100 postsecondary institutions.
Chicago is the big engine driving that economy. As Purcell puts it, “Milwaukee needs Chicago more than Chicago needs Milwaukee.”
Why doesn’t the governor grasp this?