Will Chicago Eat Racine?

Kenosha is already a bedroom suburb of Chicago. Is Racine next? And will this hurt Milwaukee?

Illustration by Michael Waraksa.

A mile west of Lake Michigan and just southwest of Main Street in Racine is the Uptown neighborhood, which hardly lives up to its tony name. Other than throwbacks like Easterday Office Supply and the Corner House restaurant (still the best place in town to get a prime rib), the neighborhood has for years been mostly junk shops: storefront after storefront of used furniture emporiums stuffed with quirky merchandise and ramshackle bric-a-brac optimistically marketed as antiques.

Musing in his City Hall office less than a mile away, Mayor Gary Becker sees a way to make Uptown considerably more upmarket. He envisions an arts enclave that would draw residents and tourists. But how to accomplish this? “You can have the world’s greatest economic development coordinator and throw millions of dollars at stuff, but if you don’t have people, you don’t have talent, you’re going to have problems.”

Talent lures business. Talent jazzes up the community. And who’s got talent? Artists. “You go to communities where there’s a large concentration of artists, like Taos or Santa Fe – those communities seem to do pretty well. That talent attracts other talent, even if it’s not artists – it shows it’s a cool, hip place to be” – Becker pauses and chuckles – “a term that probably shows I’m not cool and hip anymore.”

It’s a sunny, summery morning, a day made for optimism, but still: Taos? Santa Fe? For a four-season factory town to cast itself among such sun-drenched, trendy havens might seem positively delusional.

But Becker’s real inspiration, it turns out, is far more mundane: Paducah. That would be Paducah, Ky., with a population of just over 25,000. Since 2000, this self-described town of “Art, Rhythm & Rivers” has given financial incentives that have lured some 70 artists to relocate from 17 states – including Wisconsin. Becker sees this as the way to revitalize Uptown – and more.

“Uptown is a gateway coming into Racine,” he says. “You can use that to kind of brand your town. If you can take Uptown and in five years have coffee shops and little cafes or delis and art galleries and people coming and going, that changes people’s perspectives of their entry into Racine and makes it, hopefully, a place people want to be part of.”

So the city bought up land and buildings and hired a muralist to begin a makeover in the neighborhood. It’s offering seven neighborhood properties at prices ranging from $150,000 to $400,000 and hiring a contractor to begin renovating some of the sites on spec. And on a dedicated city Web site, the city has put out a “Call to Artists” to “Come to Racine. Create Art. Create Community. Create Uptown Racine.”

A fantasy? No less a cultural arbiter than the New York Times takes Becker seriously. The Gray Lady has visited the city three times in as many years to write glowing features and even posted a multimedia slide show on the Times Internet site. Instead of Taos, the Times offered its East Coast audience this extravagant comparison: “If Racine, Wis., is not yet the Hamptons of the Midwest, it’s not for lack of effort.”

As for where he will find the artists and hipsters who will turn Racine into the Hamptons, or at least the Paducah of the Midwest, Becker’s target is a nearby big city, and it’s not Milwaukee.

“We’re starting to lay out a plan to market to Chicago,” the mayor says. Racine is just an hour and 20 minutes away with a cost of living 30 to 40 percent cheaper, Becker notes. “Yet if your buddy has an opening at a gallery down on Superior [one of Chicago’s artsy avenues] on a Friday night, it’s no big deal to get back there. You don’t lose your access to Chicago, but you’re able to move up here.”

Just south of Racine, its Rust Belt partner of Kenosha has already made the transition from independent manufacturing town to a bedroom suburb of Chicago: Huge numbers of Kenosha residents work in Illinois. Now Racine seems poised to embrace a similar transition, to attach its territory to Chicagoland. “Chicago is the economic engine of the Midwest,” Becker says.

The result could continue a gradual and radical transformation of southeastern Wisconsin. Yet what’s striking here is the lack of resistance to the idea: Racine’s leaders don’t just expect to be gradually absorbed by the colossus to the south, they want to be eaten. Even more striking, their nearer neighbor to the north simply doesn’t enter into the discussion. Milwaukee is completely out of the picture, not because Racine and Kenosha weren’t once interested in closer connections, but because they’ve concluded Milwaukee has no great interest in the idea. If this is a squandered opportunity for Milwaukee – and it certainly seems so – it won’t be the first time Milwaukee has lost out to Chicago.

More than acentury ago, cities up and down the shoreline – Port Washington, Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Chicago – all competed to see which would prevail as queen of Lake Michigan. Milwaukee seemed poised to win the race.

“Until probably the 1840s, Milwaukee and Chicago were neck-and-neck in terms of population,” notes historian John Gurda. “Then the railroads came from the east coast.” They came to Chicago, which after lagging Milwaukee slightly in trade on the lake, surged ahead, becoming the nation’s freight capital in less than a decade. “Chicago raced out in the lead and never looked back.”

The result galled Milwaukeeans. “There was a kind of wounded pride that lasted here a very long time,” Gurda says. Yet even as Chicago became the nation’s second-largest city, Milwaukee held its own and avoided being obliterated by its bigger rival.

Trains built Chicago. Breweries and machine shops built Milwaukee. Racine was built by farm machinery, automobiles, small engines and floor wax.

One of the city’s forefathers was Jerome Increase Case, inventor of a grain thresher and founder of JI Case. The company made tractors, construction gear and, for a while around the turn of the last century, cars. Racine’s nascent automotive industry nurtured parts makers like Modine (radiators), Twin Disc (clutches) and Walker Manufacturing (mufflers) – all of which have far outlasted auto assembly in the community.

Racine also gave birth to the fractional horsepower electrical motor – an invention that merits its own display in the city’s history museum located Downtown. This innovation made possible kitchen conveniences like the blender and the garbage disposal, both Racine creations. Hamilton Beach, the blender pioneer once headquartered in Racine, long ago moved away and closed down its factory, but InSinkErator still makes ever newer, quieter and more powerful garbage disposals at a plant on the city’s South Side.

But the biggest name in Racine industry is S.C. Johnson & Son, the consumer products giant still privately owned by the Johnson family, which separately owns banking and outdoor recreation companies that carry the Johnson moniker. Originally founded to manufacture wooden parquet floors, the company developed paste wax formulated to shine those floors, then saw that part of the business soar. Diversification followed, and today Johnson is probably better known for its Glade air fresheners, Raid insecticides and OFF! mosquito repellents than for wax.

Racine was a union city; a rash of labor disputes in the 1930s led right-wing pundits to nickname it “Little Moscow.” Yet in many ways, its blue-collar profile has been more muted in comparison with Kenosha, just 15 miles south on Sheridan Road. Unlike Racine, Kenosha boasted a single, huge employer: American Motors Corp. – and with that came the United Auto Workers, wielding significant clout in the city’s politics. In Racine, that role fell to Johnson Wax – a nonunion, progressive and some would say paternalistic employer. But also unlike Kenosha, Racine was a corporate headquarters community, producing a substantial concentration of professional and upper-middle-class people.

Still, its economy revolved around manufacturing. Roger Caron, the 62-year-old executive director of Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce, was born and raised in Racine. “When I went away to college in 1964, over 60 percent of our workforce was in durable goods manufacturing,” says Caron. “We had a lot of jobs where you could just get out of high school, you wouldn’t have to have any other education, and you could make a family wage.”

But manufacturing job growth screeched to a halt in the early 1980s, when interest rates topped 15 percent and one in five workers were on the street. “You had international competition, you had companies being bought out, you had recession,” says Caron.

The single biggest casualty, though, was in Kenosha. In 1987, Chrysler bought AMC and, a year later, closed the Kenosha auto plant. An engine manufacturing operation stayed and remains to this day, but the shockwaves from losing 5,000 jobs rippled up the Lake Michigan shore.

The first glimmerof a new and different future came in Racine, not Kenosha. In 1987, Leonard Ziolkowski, the Racine County executive, pushed through a measure to renovate Racine’s harbor with a new marina. Gerald Karwowski, a local amateur historian, praises Ziolkowski’s “leadership and innovation,” but blue-collar Racine County’s voters thought the project – which would eventually become a draw to Chicagoans – was a boondoggle and threw Ziolkowski out of office.

By contrast, Kenosha was so devastated by the loss of its major manufacturer that it gladly embraced a new, Chicago-oriented economy.

The big winner was Pleasant Prairie, the suburban community southeast of Kenosha and home to LakeView Corporate Park, owned by the real estate development arm of Wisconsin Energy. Over the last two decades, industry has poured over the state line into the industrial park: Rust-Oleum. Albany-Chicago (a custom aluminum casting company). Jelly Belly. Uline Inc. (a maker of shipping supplies). Illinois firms account for nearly half of the 82 companies that have set up shop in LakeView.

Meanwhile, Kenosha also evolved into a bedroom community for Illinois. By the year 2000, 20,675 Kenosha County residents – more than one in four who are employed – traveled south to Illinois for work. The single largest employer today of Kenosha County residents is Abbott Laboratories, based in North Chicago, Ill. And now Abbott has bought land in Kenosha County with an eye toward future expansion there.

Traffic goes both ways. From 1990 to 2000, according to census data compiled by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the number of Illinois residents commuting into Kenosha County more than doubled to 3,277. It has continued to grow since.

“Kenosha is considered the northernmost suburb of Chicago,” says recently retired Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian. “We look south, not north, to our growth and development.”

Observes one Racine County business owner: “It’s almost as if the Wisconsin-Illinois border has moved up a whole county.”

1008_Racine-Marina_IMG_7069_Peter-DiAntoniRacine has looked with envy at Kenosha’s growing Illinois ties, but has taken longer to follow suit. The city of Kenosha had annexed substantial portions of surrounding land years ago, which enabled it to accommodate new development. But Racine was stalled by negotiations between the city and its surrounding communities over sewer access and appropriate compensation. Racine ultimately reached deals to extend water and sewer service in return for a cut of the tax revenues from development. Now, says Caron, “We are poised for some really interesting growth in the next five years.”

Meanwhile, Racine has been spiffing up its Downtown. Sixth Street has evolved into a trendy, faintly Bohemian strip with bistros, art galleries and an independent theater company.

A massive new headquarters for Johnson Financial Group, the banking and insurance firm owned by the same family that owns S.C. Johnson, is part of the makeover. New restaurants have popped up. Popular music concerts take over the completely rebuilt Monument Square outdoor plaza on Main Street. A few blocks away, children can splash in the summer at a fountain that memorializes Laurel Clark, the Racine-raised astronaut who was among seven to perish in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

And the Racine marina is a huge success. One thousand boat slips line Racine’s Downtown lakefront. More than half of the boats anchored there are registered in Illinois.

Racine is increasingly connecting to Chicago. Much of that started with Becker, who came into office in 2003 and began cultivating ties with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Becker served with Daley on a U.S. Conference of Mayors group representing the interests of Great Lakes cities and later chaired the body as Daley had previously. The two have become “very good friends,” says Julia Taylor, executive director of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. “That can do nothing but help Racine.”

But Roger Bybee, who edited The Racine Labor newspaper for 14 years and is a descendent of Racine industrial workers, is not convinced that marinas and art galleries and Chicago commuters can replace the old economic engine of the city. “Racine has lost nearly 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs since 1970,” and media accounts of the city’s revival are unrealistic, he contends. “It’s as if a new museum and 12 art galleries could fill the Grand Canyon left by the exit of 13,500 manufacturing jobs.”

But the old manufacturing jobs are never coming back, so what other strategy is there for Racine?

Racine Mayor Gary Becker. Photo by Peter DiAntoni.

Tyler Duston was raised in the Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park and never imagined himself working in Racine. He was living in Evanston, Ill., and working as a product designer an hour away in Schaumburg, Ill., when he got recruited for a job in Wisconsin at the S.C. Johnson company in Racine.

Duston didn’t want to leave the Chicago area. “The first thought was, ‘Could I possibly commute?’ ” He figured a one-hour trip was his limit, but adjusted that view. Riding the Metra train, he decided, would “take the edge off” compared to driving, so he decided an extra half-hour each way would be tolerable.

So Duston took the job. Most days, he boards the Metra’s North Line at Main Street in Evanston and rides to its terminal point in Kenosha. There, S.C. Johnson shuttle vans pick up Duston and his co-workers to convey them the rest of the way to Racine.

Eventually, Duston and his wife began looking at homes in Kenosha, Racine, even Milwaukee. “Milwaukee had a lot of appeal,” he said, but the couple ultimately decided they liked being connected to a bigger city like Chicago. So they stayed put in Evanston, where Duston’s wife works as an office manager. “We’re both from that area. All our friends, all our family is there.”

The Metra and I-94 have become the conveyors for hordes of commuters going back and forth across the Wisconsin border, and Racine is increasingly part of that picture. Census data counted 661 Illinois residents commuting to Racine in 2000, up less than 10 percent from the previous decade. Gradually, though, the number is growing. Racine employers increasingly consider not just Milwaukee, but Chicago to be part of their labor market.

At CNH Global, the company that includes what began as JI Case more than a century ago, roughly 100 people – 5 percent of the company’s 1,964-member Racine work force – commute from Illinois. Lee Schwartz, a CNH human resources director, came to Racine from an assignment in London about a year ago. “The great thing I’ve discovered about the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor is the opportunity to bring people within a much wider radius than I had initially thought would be our local talent pool,” he says.

Yet with all the advantages of proximity to Chicago, he adds, Racine still offers ready access to quieter, rural areas. “A five-minute drive from our headquarters can still land you in the middle of a pretty good-sized farm.”

Traffic goes the other way, too. Nearly 3,000 Racine residents commute to Illinois for jobs, according to census data. And for others, Racine really is becoming a sort of East Hampton to Chicago’s Manhattan.

Last year Leslie Hindman, owner of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers on Lake Street in Chicago, decided to buy a second home just north of Downtown Racine and overlooking its beachfront. “It was this tiny, cute house that was terribly inexpensive to me,” she says. She repairs to her Racine home on weekends year-round.

A friend who lived in Racine and commuted to Chicago turned Hindman on to Wisconsin, she says. Until then, she’d been scoping out southwestern Michigan for a getaway, but she liked Racine better. When in town, she visits the beach and Racine’s diminutive zoo, plays tennis on nearby courts, hangs out Downtown and throws parties for her neighbors. “I go to Target,” she says with a laugh, “which for me is a really big deal. I’d never been to Target before.”

Hindman expects more Chicagoans to follow her example. “It’s so inexpensive. In Racine, you can get a house on the beach for a really reasonable price. And there’s so much more to do.”

Reports like those capture why Dick Hansen, CEO of Johnson Financial, is bullish on Racine. “It’s the best of two worlds,” he says with enthusiasm. “A smaller community. Easy to get around. The cost of living is somewhat lower. And we have the full benefit of the lake.”

Hansen first bought a condominium overlooking the lake when he moved to Racine. When he later bought a house and sold the condo, the buyers hailed from Boston. “They had family and grandchildren in Chicago,” he says. “They found Racine so convenient to Chicago and not as congested and crowded.”


In July, aftersome six months of worry and speculation in Denver and Milwaukee, the joint venture MillerCoors decided to locate its corporate offices in neither city, but in Chicago. It was another loss for Milwaukee to Chicago, but to hear Milwaukee leaders tell it, it’s no problem.

“The rest of the world doesn’t care whether we’re Waukesha, Milwaukee or Racine,” says Taylor. “They see us as Chicago. If you lose a business to another part of the region, it is better that they stayed in the region. It’s still a lot better for us that they were in Chicago than if they went to Dallas or Colorado.”

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker cites an analysis by the Milwaukee 7, the economic cooperation group of seven counties in southeastern Wisconsin, which noted the importance of Chicago. “We should be embracing our proximity to Chicago as a megacity,” Walker says. The area between Milwaukee and Chicago, he adds, “is going to grow to such an extent that it’s largely indistinguishable where Chicago ends and Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine starts.”

Indeed, around the country, planners are increasingly identifying “megaregions” – clusters of cities whose fates are inextricably linked. One report identifies up to 10 such megaregions; the Boston-Washington corridor, of course, but others as well: the Bay Area of northern California, which ties together San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose and extends into southwestern Nevada; or the Pacific Northwest corridor – “Cascadia,” some planners call it – linking Portland, Ore., with Seattle, Wash.

By this reckoning, Chicago and Milwaukee are just a segment of a huge, Great Lakes megaregion that sprawls from Minnesota to Upstate New York, connecting Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Rochester, N.Y.

“If we’re going to compete with Europe and Asia, it’s going to have to be larger regions and groups of cities” working together instead of infighting, says Anthony Flint, public affairs director of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Boston. European Union planners yoke together cities even across national borders as they eye future infrastructure, transportation networks and economic development. In the U.S., by contrast, “cities tend to compete against each other,” Flint notes. “That’s something that has to be overcome.”

Viewed this way, it’s easy to say that as Chicago eats Racine, Milwaukee doesn’t have to go hungry. “I don’t feel what Racine’s doing is necessarily turning their head away from us so much as turning toward Chicago,” Walker says.

That sounds reasonable. Except that the Milwaukee 7 group is named after Milwaukee, not Chicago, and two of the seven members, Kenosha and Racine, are clearly looking to link to Illinois, not Wisconsin.

Ties between Racine and Milwaukee have always been weaker, notes Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. Racine has never been officially counted as part of Milwaukee’s metropolitan statistical area, because too few people commute to Milwaukee from Racine to meet census bureau definitions.

Perhaps more would do so if there was a transit connection. No conversation about links between cities gets very far without mention of the KRM commuter rail link being sought to connect Kenosha and Milwaukee through Racine – a service that, when implemented, would provide a cheaper alternative to Amtrak and connect not to their outskirts, but to the downtowns of Racine and Kenosha.

KRM “is a strategic requirement,” says Michael Batten, chairman of Twin Disc and head of a Racine County Workforce Development Board. Batten echoes his fellow corporate leaders in Racine, who all solidly back the project. The proposed rail line also has the support of Democratic office holders.

Among the most vocal holdouts is state Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican based in rural Racine County whose district extends from wealthy Racine suburbs like Wind Point and Caledonia to western points almost as far as Burlington. While KRM enjoys support in the city, rural voters – who see themselves as much less likely to use the service – are skeptical. Even a proposal thought to be relatively painless to locals – a $13 surcharge on car rentals in the KRM counties – has failed to gain traction.

Vos says he wants a public referendum on the issue. “If we’re going to create a brand new regional taxing authority, should the people of Wisconsin, who I believe are already overtaxed, not have a say?”

That’s not a popular position among advocates, who believe that the KRM is needed to draw business that will ultimately justify itself. “It’s only the matter of finding the right combination of political and economic will to get it done,” says Becker, Racine’s mayor. “I think that’s going to happen.”

But the issue is even more controversial in Milwaukee. Walker, Milwaukee County’s executive, insists that KRM would benefit too few people (less than 5 percent of commuters – but that assumes no reduction in driving, which his critics say isn’t realistic). “The question of whether or not we’re connected here is not a matter of whether or not somebody supports KRM or somebody supports light rail,” Walker says.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has at various times supported the KRM, though with conditions. It hasn’t been his top priority.

“Milwaukee County, the city of Milwaukee, and the four-county region can’t get their act together, and there’s no indication they will anytime soon, relative to transportation issues in particular,” says Milwaukee Ald. Robert Bauman.

But Antaramian, the former Kenosha mayor, puts all the blame on Milwaukee, arguing that its leaders are willing to talk about regional cooperation, but won’t walk the walk.

“Milwaukee and Milwaukee County have issues they have not been willing to address,” he says. “Until they do that, people will look more to the south.”

Not every Kenosha/Racine leader has given up on Milwaukee. When Bill McReynolds became Racine County executive in 2003, he saw how business was migrating from Illinois to Kenosha. “It turned their economy around,” McReynolds says. He decided to make a play for some of the same business. Over time, though, he found it was worth going north as well.

“We’re seeing a lot more things tie to the Milwaukee region rather than the Chicago region,” he says. “The partnership and expansion of the Milwaukee metro area is the key to our growth.”

Much of that growth is coming to the village of Mount Pleasant, just outside of Racine and less than a half-hour from the southern boundary of Milwaukee County. Racine has extended sewer and water service to acres upon acres of new land in Mount Pleasant. Gordon Kacala, who heads the Racine Economic Development Corp., says some 750,000 square feet of commercial/industrial space is going up purely on speculation, built by developers who believe businesses will move to this area, including many from metro Milwaukee.

But Mayor Becker remains firmly convinced the real action for Racine is down south, and his words offer a warning that Milwaukee leaders may want to take to heart. “Chicago is the economic engine, not only for the southeast Wisconsin corridor, but for the Midwest,” Becker says. “I have no problems saying that. Chicago’s the big boy.

“I don’t know if Milwaukee people are ready to understand that,” Becker continues. “There’s a huge advantage to understanding how to work with Chicago and connect to it. And I don’t think they do understand it, because otherwise commuter rail would have been a slam dunk 20 years ago.

“They need to understand the closer ties you can do to Chicago, the better off you can be. Mayor Daley’s not fighting to bring the Olympics here because he’s a huge sports fan. It’s to keep Chicago on the cutting-edge as a global city. To keep Chicago as an upper-tier global city.

“Good, bad or indifferent, it’s the only one in the Midwest that is.”

Racine resident Erik Gunn is a frequent contributor to Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at letters@milwaukeemagazine.com.



Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.