Downtown Milwaukee is compared to 10 peer cities. How does it stack up? What can we learn? Let's break it down.

There’s a fascinating new analysis out on Downtown Milwaukee. Nearly 200 pages and eight months in the making, the new report provides a treasure trove of data, facts, charts, maps, and numbers comparing Milwaukee’s Downtown to that of 10 other peer American cities.

These cities? Baltimore, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Portland, Salt Lake City and St. Louis.

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Topics analyzed include “Convention Center & Hotel,” “Restaurant and Nightlife,” “Sports, Concert & Entertainment Venue,” and “Transit.”

So how does Milwaukee stack up?

Well, like any in depth analysis, the conclusions to be drawn from Hunden Strategic Partners’ analysis are numerous and complex. However, it can serve as an important factual baseline for debates sure to come in the Downtown realm, even without taking into account any of the report’s suggestions.

There’s much to unpack here, but this table offers a compelling, albeit truncated, bigger-picture view.

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Let’s start with the positives. Downtown Milwaukee’s biggest asset is its cultural infrastructure. In this category, Milwaukee ranks the highest out of any of the 11 cities analyzed. This portion of the report also includes an analysis of Chicago, noting that while the Windy City is “seven times larger than Milwaukee…Milwaukee has more than one third as many seats.”

Repeatedly, the report suggests Milwaukee needs to promote this advantage (more on this later).

Another positive is Milwaukee’s high number of “Interesting/Boutique Hotels.” On its own, this isn’t all that interesting of an attribute, but it speaks to a larger point: Downtown Milwaukee has character. It’s not just the presence of hotels like the Iron Horse or Brewhouse Inn or even the Pfister. Milwaukee’s character shows up often in this analysis. While Milwaukee doesn’t score all that highly in its overall number of restaurants, there are very few national chains, which makes Milwaukee unique. Downtown’s historic buildings and architecture, too, are listed as major assets.

So, objectively, Downtown Milwaukee has incredible cultural infrastructure, cool hotels, unique historic buildings, and a restaurant scene all its own. These are wonderful traits for a city’s Downtown.

And like Downtowns across the country, Milwaukee’s is growing.

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Plus: compared to peer cities, Milwaukee has high number of people living Downtown, ranking behind only Baltimore.

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There are, of course, problems. But in certain areas, steps are being taken to address some of these disadvantages.

The analysis was commissioned by the Greater Milwaukee Committee and the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District #21 largely  because of the pivotal decisions hanging in the balance for Downtown, namely, proposals for a streetcar, a new arena and expanded convention center.

One concern highlighted throughout the analysis is that Milwaukee’s Downtown is larger and more spread out than most other Downtowns and lacks connectivity between nodes like the Historic Third Ward, Brady Street, Cathedral Square and areas west of the river like the Convention Center or Bradley Center.

The city has already made one major decision in addressing this disadvantage by bolstering its public transit infrastructure with the passage of the streetcar plan. This analysis looks very positively upon the streetcar, seeing it as a way to weave together the problematically disconnected nodes. In fact, the analysis’ biggest complaint about the streetcar is that it doesn’t go far enough to address the connectivity issue.

“It is a necessary step to begin the Milwaukee streetcar line as it is proposed, although this is not a transit system so much as a circulator,” the analysis reads. “It would be helpful for Milwaukee to expand the proposed streetcar route from the proposed initial route to also include the area from West Wisconsin street northward to the new NBA Bucks arena and Old World 3rd Street. That link will be critical to the success of the entire line due to the large numbers of people that would see and potentially use the streetcar during events and on weekends when Old World Third Street is active.” Rail lines connecting Downtown to Miller Park and other destinations on the North Side and West Side are also viewed as potential benefits in the analysis’ ultimate conclusion – a conclusion that is almost entirely devoted to discussing transit.

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However, as the table below shows, the addition of the streetcar alone will not vault Milwaukee into the top tier when it comes to public transportation.

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Portland, a city Milwaukee should view as “aspirational,” according to analysis author Rob Hunden, mitigates many of their low marks in “walkability” and other concerns over its spread-out Downtown with its well-developed transit system that includes a streetcar, light rail, and commuter train.

(Sidenote: I recently spent a short amount of time in Portland’s Downtown, and they have an entire city block filled with food carts – a relative anomaly reflected in the restaurant portion of this analysis. Let’s just steal this idea for the surface lot at 4th Street and Wisconsin Avenue instead of pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into temporary solutions. It would address the low number of cheap food options available in that part of Downtown without inviting a chain restaurant takeover and provide a solution for a space in desperate need of permanent activation. Let’s do this yesterday.)

Also in process, of course, is the effort to build a new NBA-anchored sports and entertainment arena. A very difficult financing puzzle needs to be completed before the future is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Milwaukee Bucks. And because financing is connected to the state budget – and is far from being the top budget priority – no amount of stories indicating any kind of arena agreement timetable will change the fact that the budget will need to be passed in order for anything to move forward.

Nevertheless, the analysis says keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee is “critical.” Even with the Bucks currently Downtown, Milwaukee is below average for its number of sports venue seats because Miller Park is located outside of Downtown (note: this is viewed as a mistake), and there is no professional football in Milwaukee.

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While the streetcar is now moving forward and the arena is approaching decision time, debate over a convention center expansion has been on the backburner. We’ve known for some time that the convention center has fallen behind. Wisconsin Center District chairman Frank Gimbel has admitted as such. And compared to peer cities, Milwaukee is at the bottom.

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In this report’s wake, Gimbel has renewed calls for a convention center expansion and is proposing a sales tax increase to pay for it. It’s not the first time a sales tax increase has come up in recent months. But since any tax increase would require approval from a state legislature under conservative leadership that views taxes like the plague, it’s very difficult to envision a scenario where this happens.

So, in a roundabout way, the analysis suggests to do all of this – build (and expand) the streetcar, build the new arena, expand the convention center.

Which brings us to Monday’s Public Policy Forum Viewpoint Luncheon at the Intercontinental Hotel in Downtown Milwaukee, now available to watch in full thanks to the good folks at Wisconsin Eye.

Though Bucks president Peter Feigin was a late scratch for the panel as he was summoned to Madison for arena talks, it is worth watching for several reasons – Hunden provides added analysis, emphasizing that “where you build things matters,” Greg Marcus, CEO of the Marcus Corp., makes some news about expanding hotels, Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the Department of City Development, stressed the importance of Wisconsin Avenue, and Eve Hall, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, voiced concern over people in parts of the city who “feel they are not even part of the discussion.” But ultimately, it was Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Group, who stole the show.

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“We have a horrible track record in the city,” said Witt. “Look at what we’ve got. We’ve got the Grand Avenue Mall, the Milwaukee Theatre, the (UWM Panther Arena), and the convention center. And they’re all kind of failing entities.”

Having interviewed Witt at length and seen him speak on panels a number of times, a few common themes emerge when he talks about Downtown. He attributes the Pabst Theater Group’s success to a focus on building community and not on selling tickets. He’s very critical of Frank Gimbel and the Wisconsin Center District and how the convention center, Milwaukee Theatre and UWM Panther Arena are managed. He says Visit Milwaukee is doing a poor job of marketing the city, is critical of its leadership and the amount of funding used by the Mayor to market the city. And he has very much his own way of conveying these points (as you can see in the video). This time, his main point was accountability.

“I think we have to have a better plan,” he said. “We have to have a better strategic effort to compete. I love to compete. Competition in those areas is what makes us better. But the lack of accountability in how we market or how we sell what we do leads us to be fairly mediocre.”

His other big point? The importance of civic-related investment – the type that made his success possible.

“I’m sitting on this stage today – because really, who gives a shit about the guy who books concert tickets in town? – because Mike Cudahy made a civic-related investment,” he said. “And he bought the Pabst Theater and lost money on buying it and then lost money for the first few years of owning it.”

It’s easy to overlook this point, but 15 years ago, the Pabst was nothing. Now, it’s a powerhouse. Of the five venues listed in Hunden’s analysis of theaters and concert venues, three are a part of the Pabst Theater Group (the others being the Milwaukee Theatre and Marcus Center). The Pabst Group has also expanded its footprint around the city, doing shows at six venues outside its own walls (the Marcus Amphitheater, BMO Harris Pavilion, Miller Caves, the Milwaukee Theatre, the Humphrey Scottish Rite Center, and (coming in June) Colectivo Coffee). This success should not be overlooked. It should be studied more carefully and this amazing cultural infrastructure of the Pabst, Riverside, and Turner should be better leveraged as a selling point for Downtown.

Big ideas are ultimately the focus of the report, and they should be. They’re the big transformative projects city leaders are finally examining, and they’re all important. But what it also reveals is that there is low-hanging fruit there for the taking. If Downtown’s cultural infrastructure stands out among peer cities, that should be promoted. If Downtown’s restaurants and hotels eschew the bland chain ethos, that should be seen as a competitive advantage. We now have a better understanding of what Downtown Milwaukee is good at. While we’re thinking big, let’s not forget to do so while playing to our strengths.

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