The $74 Million Gamble
Can Milwaukee become a world water hub? It’s betting $74 million it can.
The Milwaukee Water Council’s mission statement makes its ambition clear: to establish this city not just as the Great Lakes leader or even the nation’s leader, but as “the global capital for fresh water research and education.”
Currently, the three global powerhouses in water research are Singapore, Israel and Netherlands. “Singapore and Israel have their own army. We don’t have that,” says Dean Amhaus, the water council’s executive director. Amhaus is joking, but in truth there is a grandiose feel to the proclamations and predictions regarding the city’s potential as a water technology leader.
Badger Meter CEO Rich Meeusen has in the past declared that “Milwaukee has a greater concentration of water technologies than any place on earth,” which is a bit of a stretch. David Garman, Dean of the recently created UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Science, has declared that Milwaukee can become “the Singapore of the Great Lakes.”
From the beginning, the discussion of turning Milwaukee into a water hub has been marked by a certain degree of hubris. An initial study by UWM urban planning professor Sammis White concluded there were 120 firms and 20,000 workers involved in water technology in Milwaukee and urged the city to build on this: “Place the bet; make it large, move quickly,” he wrote.
But as a story for Milwaukee Magazine by Barbara Miner found, White never publicly released any such list. A counter-study by UWM professor Marc Levine of the Center for Economic Development found there really more like 7,500 workers in the water industry here. Milwaukee, he found, ranks 7th nationally in plants and offices maintained by top 40 global water companies and 19th in water technology patents.
On the academic side, the UWM Great Lakes Water Institute is the largest academic freshwater research facility on the Great Lakes. But other universities in the nation have been beefing up their water research and curriculum.
But Meeusen, the driving force behind the water hub idea, has brushed off such carping as mere details. As Michael Horne recently reported for Urban Milwaukee, Meeusen conceded that other cities have plans similar to Milwaukee’s, but “I want to be so far ahead that I don’t care what they are doing.”
The idea is for the water council to work closely with the new UWM school, connecting water technology companies with university research, but the two groups ended up building separate headquarters. The water council is spending $21 million to renovate a 106-year-old building at 223 W. Pittsburgh (whose name will be changed to Freshwater Way). And the School of Freshwater Sciences will be spending $53 million to create a 100,000 square foot expansion of the existing UWM Great Lakes Water Institute at 600 E. Greenfield on the lakefront. The building will be a marine, freshwater and atmospheric research laboratory, with state-of-the-art labs for researchers and students, classrooms and quarantine facilities for aquatic organisms from the Great Lakes.
Some critics have questioned why two buildings instead of one, but there were some compelling reasons for this. The UWM facility needs to be on the lake, so research vessels have easy access to the water. But because of the public trust doctrine, that building could not have provided space for private companies. Which is what the water council’s headquarters will do. Moreover, Amhaus notes, “We can get in an existing building faster and cheaper.”
The group secured historic tax credits to help pay for the renovation of the seven story, 98,000 square foot building built in 1906. Badger Meter and A. O. Smith will have offices there, but Amhaus notes that UWM will have an entire floor in his building, which should enhance collaboration between business and academia. Besides, he notes, the lakefront headquarters for the UWM school is just three minutes away. “If things are done right three minutes apart actually gets closer and closer,” he says.
The renovation is expected to be finished by next summer while the UWM facility will take until at least the end of 2013.
In the meantime, there has been other progress for the water hub project. A proposal for a shared research by UWM, Marquette University and regional water-related companies won a $675,000 National Science Foundation Grant. UWM has created a new Center for Water Policy, with the help of a $2.6 million gift from Lynde Uihlein. And UWM seemed to score a coup in landing Garman as the first dean of its School of Freshwater Sciences.
Garman, who previously ran a water technology incubator in Australia, has a strong background in starting new water tech companies, and says the key to this is developing linkages between companies and universities. He predicts that in five years time the UWM school he runs will turn out 50 to 100 master’s and Ph.D graduates.
Questions About the Contractor
UMM’s lakefront building will be constructed by Janesville-based J.P. Cullen & Sons, which won a public bidding process. The company has done many projects for both UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison, but it recently ran into controversy over its role in the exterior repairs for Milwaukee’s City Hall.
Repairs to the building’s terra cotta details are falling apart and the city now estimates a total price tag of $9 million to $15 million to repair the repairs. J.P. Cullen is one of several defendants in the suit, but a subcontractor hired by the company may ultimately be found responsible. Larry Rocole, vice-president of the Milwaukee office for J.P. Cullen, says “we’re cooperating (with the investigation). I think that at the end of the day JP Cullen may not be found at fault.”
Rocole says a key challenge in the building’s design was to make sure the temperatures stay constant for the aquariums; otherwise the fish can be harmed. The new facility’s price tag includes building a connection to We Energies’ underground steam tunnels, as steam heat is more reliable and better able to maintain a constant temperature.
The Amhaus Switcheroo
The 2010 federal tax form for the Milwaukee Water Council shows that it was making payments to the non-profit Spirit of Milwaukee for the services of Dean Amhaus, who previously served as Spirit’s executive director. In essence, Spirit of Milwaukee was loaning out Amhaus. “Dean worked hard to help create the water council,” says Gary Grunau, board chair of Spirit of Milwaukee.
In fact, he did almost all of his work for the water council in 2010, which paid Spirit $121,552 that year for Amhaus’ services, while Spirit paid him just over $18,000. In the process, it seems, Amhaus created a new job for himself as the water council’s executive director. Its annual budget for 2010 was $562,893. You can expect that to grow.