Michael Porter was selling and Milwaukee was buying. In a packed Pfister Hotel ballroom, business, government and civic leaders marveled at his September 2003 speech kicking off the Initiative for a Competitive Milwaukee. The inner city could be magically transformed, the economics professor assured the crowd, just as in other cities that used Porter’s approach. […]

Michael Porter was selling and Milwaukee was buying.

In a packed Pfister Hotel ballroom, business, government and civic leaders marveled at his September 2003 speech kicking off the Initiative for a Competitive Milwaukee. The inner city could be magically transformed, the economics professor assured the crowd, just as in other cities that used Porter’s approach. And so Milwaukee’s elite group of civic leaders, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, grabbed the reins of this effort.

Today, the ICM Web site is shut down, and an inquiry to the only phone number listed is answered by a Greater Milwaukee Committee receptionist who isn’t sure who should take the call. Some $800,000 in foundation, government and business funds was spent on Porter’s plan, much of it going to the professor and his Boston-based organization, Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. This group’s senior vice president, Deirdre Coyle, concedes that Milwaukee’s organized effort to transform the central city has essentially “dissolved.”

Coyle, however, insists that there are still ongoing activities here inspired by Porter. “It would be patently unfair to say that the ICIC came in, charged a lot of money and left nothing behind,” she says.

But Amy Glasmeier, professor of economic geography at Penn State, says a number of cities have been “Porterized” – left with big ideas and no follow through. “He is probably one of the most highly paid speakers in economic development in the world,” she says. “He generates a vision but does not construct plans to go forward. He doesn’t function like a real analyst does.”

Perhaps no one was more taken with Porter than Helen Bader Foundation President Dan Bader, who gave Porter and his ICIC $370,000 just to do an analysis of Milwaukee’s inner city and another $300,000 to establish the Initiative for a Competitive Milwaukee. The State of Wisconsin threw in $100,000, Miller Brewing added another $25,000, and smaller amounts came from other local businesses.

ICM tapped a successful Milwaukee inner city entrepreneur, Art Smith of Keystone -Travel Services, to head the project. The project’s executive committee included Brady Corporation Chair Katherine Hudson, Midwest Airlines Chief Executive Officer Tim -Hoeksema, Manpower President Jeffrey Joerres and Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy.

But Smith left ICM in 2004 to devote himself full time to his business, and the organization gradually fell apart. As embarrassing as this might seem for its chief sponsor, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, GMC President Julia Taylor insists that ICM was “never seen as a stand-alone program” and that parts of the program are ongoing. For instance, Cory Nettles, an attorney with Quarles & Brady and former state secretary of commerce, is overseeing an effort to start and expand minority businesses.

But at the heart of ICM were four clusters intended to enhance businesses and jobs in healthcare, business services, construction and manufacturing, says John Pawasarat, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment & Training Institute. Little was done to develop the clusters, he notes. Taylor, however, contends that the “cluster concept is still relevant.”

To Marc Levine, director of the UWM Center for Economic Development, Porter is an “academic huckster” raking in money while giving cities no real action plan.

Porter did not respond to interview requests. Coyle says Porter’s biggest accomplishment was to change the discussion of inner cities from a problem area to a business opportunity. But Jeffrey Browne, president of the Public Policy Forum, questions how much progress Milwaukee has made in this regard. Local companies, he says, bypass the inner city and “go against their best economic interests all the time.”

Ultimately, Glasmeier says, Porter’s formulaic approach may be too simplistic, leaving business leaders bailing out when they realize the work it may require.

Meanwhile, Porter has developed another specialty. Appleton’s ThedaCare is showcased in Porter’s latest book, Redefining Health Care, so the healthcare company asked him to give speeches in Appleton and Milwaukee in July. What was the high-priced professor paid to sell his latest wares in Wisconsin? ThedaCare representatives won’t say.

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