This blue-collar town, which has long put a high premium on the work ethic, now hopes to join the growing ranks of "fun" cities. By March civic leaders expect to open an enclosed, four-block mall of 150 restaurants and specialty shops aimed at adding enough downtown entertainment sparkle on evenings and weekends to revitalize on the city's deteriorating West Side.
To do it, they are teaming up with the Rouse Company, the Maryland-based commercial development and management firm that has scored such downtown showplace successes as Harborplace in Baltimore and Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston.
Milwaukee, which has an ethnically mixed metropolitan population of 1.4 million with the city accounting for almost half the total, was not hit as early or as hard as many cities its size by the usual exodus to the suburbs. But city officials and business leaders say the handwriting of what was ahead for downtown became clear by the early 1970s. They decided they had to start planning then -- well before vacant buildings were boarded up -- if the outflow were to be stopped.
"Every year downtown was looking less attractive, older, and a little less convineint -- it didn't deserve what was happening to it," recalls Stephen Dragos, executive vice-president of the milwaukee Redevelopment Corporation (MRC), a private for-profit firm of business leaders formed in 1973 to decide on a specific plan of action.
Four years later MRC decided to launch a mall anchored at each end by the existing headquarters of Gimbels and the Boston Store, largest stores in the state. MRC expected to be only the catalyst in the venture but ended up as a major partner. When the Rouse Company was approached to take on the development job, company officials said they were too deeply involved in other projects to take on more than leasing and management job for Milwaukee.
So MRC, the city, and Rouse formed a three-way partnership to tackle the proposed $60 million Grand Avenue Mall. MRC, which now claims about 50 stockholders, watches over the design and construction and is in effect the developer. Rouse is handpicking the shops to line the 50-foot wide retail skywalks and which will be part of the restored 1916 Plankinton Arcade Building.
The City of Milwaukee, which is paying about half the project's cost, took on the all-important job of acquiring the property, demolishing the buildings that needed to go, and making the necessary street, sidewalk, and lighting repairs. Mayor Henry Maier, a veteran of 23 consecutive years in that office, agreed to take part only if no new taxpayer dollars were involved. Accordingly, the city's money comes from an Urban Development Action Grant and from tas increment financing, a technique involving borrowing against the future tax value of the property. Apparently convinced that they are in no way paying the freight, milwaukee taxpayers largely support the project. Even Milwaukee's Common Council, the local legislative body that has had to pass on a number of mall matters, has given most a unanimously favorable vote.
Hopes are high that the new mall will do much more than create temporary construction and permanent retailing jobs and keep West Wisconsin Avenue lively. The hope is that other businesses -- and particularly housing developers -- will be encouraged to join forces and settle in on Milwaukee's West Side as well.
In recent years most downtown construction activity, including the city's one 42-story skyscraper, has been on the city's East Side between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. One new West Side ingredient is expected to help: a new federal building employing at least 1,000 workers will go up across from the proposed mall.
"We don't expect to rebuild the whole downtown but to give it a powerful sense of direction so that everyone feels that their individual businesses and property will prosper," Mr. Dragos says.
But no one here expects the hoped for to happen without a strong promotional push for the new mall and unless the project succeeds in at least stabilizing Milwaukee's West side.
"This is our last shot at briging Milwaukee back," insists John Schmitt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and a man who serves on a number of civic improvement task forces.
Often abundant close-in city housing, which Milwaukee lacks, is considered a critical factor in the success of urban malls.
"I think the mall will reduce the withdrawals from the central city, but I don't think it's going to bring hordes of people back downtown -- and I'm a very optimistic person," says Arthur B. Py Jr., an architect and president of Py-Vavra Development Inc. In his view the kinds of shops picked by the Rouse Company could make a large difference. The need, he says, is quality merchandise. Necessities, he says, are readily available, but anything else often has to be ordered from larger cities. As a result, "Too much of Milwaukee drives to Chicago to buy their Gucci shoes."
It was Mr. Py who gave the West Side of town its strongest vote of confidence in recent by designing and building the new Hyatt Regency Hotel near the city's convention center and sports arena there. It was the first new hotel in that section in more than 20 years. But as he tells it, he did not have an easy time getting the needed funds from local investors. Eventually he had to turn to a New York life insurance company to get the project off the ground.
"Milwaukee is a very conservative community," he explains. "Everybody supported the project in theory but because the city wasn't in desperate straits , no one was really feeling the pinch. Everyone was reluctant to put up the dollars.
"I call Milwaukee a 'see, feel, and touch' community," he says. "Chicago can lease an office building off a set of plans but here you don't lease anything until someone touches the walls and sees the view."
Still, some argue that milwaukee's widely acknowledged conservatism may have helped the city financially more over the years than it has hurt. The city has not been overbuilt, for instance, and there have been few business failures.
Also, Milwaukee was one of the earliest cities to set aside banks of cleared land for industrial development within its widely spread 96 square mile perimeters. The city's sale of such property at less than market rates has brought some 11 companies inside city limits since 1975, says James Scherer, one of the city's economic development officers. By next spring another $3 million worth of such city land will be ready for sale.
"Over the years Milwaukee has done things very carefully, and I think that kind of conservatism has been positive," notes Eric Schenker, dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "Its downtown is being developed at a reasonable pace. The city is a perfect laboratory -- the right size so that whatever you do has an impact."
But the city's wide array of well-managed family-owned businesses, often in a good cash position, have also been ripe targets for acquisitions and mergers in recent years. Latest to go is the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, which is being bought out by a LaCrosse, Wis., brewery. The concern of civic leaders is not just the immediate loss in company jobs but also business lost to local service firms in such fields as accounting and law. And most cities find that firms headquartered in their midst are the strongest and most loyal contributors to city cultural and development projects.
The AFL-CIO's John Schmitt says he thinks there should be a federal law as there is in Germany, restricting the right of companies to pull out of communities overnight.
"In a lot of these moves the name of the game is greed for profit, and communities are being torn apart by it," he says.
Milwaukee's conservatism has alo helped build its reputation for moving slowly. Paul Juhnke of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce defends it: "We've never been accused of moving too fast. We like to think it's because we do what we do well." Others such as the city's James Scherer say that progress only appears slow in Milwaukee because every step is so closely watched: "I don't think things take any longer here -- they just get more attention. Maybe we're starved for news."
Almost the only news a visitor reads of in Milwaukee papers these days, aside from a running commentary on various economic developments, is growing citizen concern (particularly among the 17 percent of city percent of city residents who are black) about possible police brutality. Triggering the concern was the arrest one night this summer of Ernest Lacy, a 22-year-old black, for a rape it was later learned he did not commit. He died under questionable circumstances that evening while in police custody. Milwaukee citizens have held several marches in support of a thorough investigation. Though the police department has dismissed the charges in its own investigations, a formal court inquest into Lacy's death and circustances surrounding it began Sept. 14.
Although Milwaukee is probably best know to many for its beer production -- three of the five largest breweries have long been headquartered here -- only 2 precent of its work force is actually engaged in that industry. The great bulk works in manufacturing. Indeed, Milkauwee ranks first in the percentage of its labor force in manufacturing among the 30 largest metropolitan areas of the country. Although hit hard by the current economic trend of repidly growing services and of declining manufacturing, Milwaukee's industrial diversity has helped it considerably in weathering that storm. Everything from outboard motors of flour-mill equipment is made here. That diversity has to be patiently explained by city officials every time the city's triple A bond rating comes under review and its unusually heavy reliance on manufacturing questioned.
Still, business and city leaders here agree that company departures and rising unemployment in recent years have taken their toll.
"The home construction market is zilch, 65 percent of our mechanical workers are on the bench -- we're not in good shape," Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Schmit says.
Virtually everyone in Milwaukee agrees that the city needs considerably more economic growth to make up for those losses and to keep the tax dollars rolling in.
But architect Arthur Py, stressing there is nowwhere else in the United States he would rather live than Milwaukee, ar guest that the city will not move forward significantly until it comes to grips with its own identity and begins to aggresively and persistently market its own strengths.
"Milwaukee has lived so long in the shadows of Chicago and Minneapolis that it has a tendency to underestimate its own ability," he says. "Our people have got to dig in and be willing to show they believe in this city. . . . You can't take a neutral position. This community is geared a great deal to the residential taxpayer's satisfaction. It does not provide any incentives for (business) development. It restrains and controls it. If we don't wake up soon , we could lose what we have. Mergers are picking off some of our most successful companies, taking away a lot of our productive dollars. . . .I'm positive about Milwaukee's future but I'm also very concerned."
"We know we've got some pluses and some minuses," says Paul Juhnke of the Association of Commerce, who concedes that most local growth has bee due to expansion of existing businesses rather than to new recruits. "Probably our key asset is our skilled labor force -- in our view, that is conpetitive."
If Milwaukee does not experience the growth in needs, City officials and taxpayers thenselves could face some tough financial decisions in the months ahead.
The city is currenty under court order to curb pollution going into Lake Michigan and must rebuild its swewer system. Civic leaders are muling over the merits of a comprehansive deep tunnel approach to handle both sewage and storm water vs. a separate system for a Either way the taxpayer bill
Also up for a decision soon: whether or not to complete the city's crisscrossing freeway system, which links the center of town with virtually any suburb in a 15-to-20-minute drive. Construction came to a screeching hall a few years back when the city's priority need was seen as rebuilding housing the developing commercial property. Thought two referendum have been passed in the community urging completion, nothing has been done
Civic leaders are also trying to decide whether to change their recruiting methods in an effort to draw more conventions to the city's West Side or to expand the available space for such gatherings or both. There is sure to be a dollar cost to any decision.
All this when routine city service costs keep climbing. Milwaukee Mayor Maier has said he may ask city voters in a referendum next fall whether, given the choice, they refer increased taxes or cuts in city services.