Why Businesses Are Moving To The City
Many are moving from suburbs to Downtown and Walker's Point, seeking younger workers.
In January 2015 Plunkett Raysich Architects announced it was moving back to the greater Downtown area. The company was founded in 1935 and located Downtown, but moved to the suburbs in the late 1960s and later to the city’s far Northwest Side. Now it’s coming back to where it started.
“It’s really a location that’s thriving now,” says David Raysich, managing partner of the firm. “Downtown, the Third Ward, Walker’s Point, Milwaukee is a happening place right now.” The move, he says, will help the company recruit and retain young employees. “Younger people want to be Downtown, they want to be where the action is, where all the restaurants are, where Summerfest is, with all the things to do at night.”
Much has been made of Northwestern Mutual’s decision to build its huge new addition Downtown, but there is also a long list of companies that have decided to move from the suburbs to Downtown or Walker’s Point in just the last few years, including Stormwater Solutions Engineering (from Pewaukee in 2012), Corvisa Services (Wauwatosa, 2012), Natural Resources Technology (Pewaukee, 2013), Readers Digest (Greendale, 2014), Irgens (Wauwatosa, 2014), HSA Bank (Glendale, 2014) and Stark Investments (St. Francis, 2015).
Charles “Chad” Wilkins, head of HSA Bank, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that its move to Schlitz Park in Downtown embraces “a great location” where “all of the amenities will help us attract new talent.” He noted the proximity to downtown restaurants and entertainment, the RiverWalk and access to public transit.
Mayor Tom Barrett says this trend is part of a two-fold process. “What we’re continuing to see is a growth in the residential population of Downtown and adjoining areas, which means a growing work force, which makes it more attractive to companies.”
“We absolutely expect there to be more growth in Walker’s Point,” Barrett says. “From Downtown to the Third Ward to the Fifth Ward, those are really hot areas.”
With added residential density, there are more potential customers for restaurants and bars and other nightlife. Within a ten-block radius of 1st and National is the hottest restaurant scene in all of metro Milwaukee, and Plunkett Raysich’s new headquarters will be on S. Water St., “with all these restaurants within walking distance for lunch,” Raysich notes.
The increase in residential units in greater Downtown goes back to the 1990s, and began under Mayor John Norquist. Since 2000, the downtown population has increased by nearly 26 percent, the downtown Business Improvement District (BID 21) found. “In 2012, the media age of downtown residents was 29.9 years old,” the BID’s website notes.
As for business, the BID now counts 1,200 businesses in the downtown area — and the number is growing.
The BID did two surveys of downtown businesses, both of which found business executives had very positive impressions of the area. Its 2007 study interviewed 89 CEOs of large companies and 62 percent said the downtown business climate was better than it had been three years before that and 63 percent felt it would be even better three years later. Typical comments were that “Our downtown location says we are successful, which is worth it’s weight in gold,” and “Being located downtown gives you the pulse of the Milwaukee community,” and “The big shots are still downtown.”
The BID’s 2009 study of 46 small business CEOs had very similar results. “Small companies choose to locate downtown for the same reasons as larger companies. They cite the classic advantages – proximity to clients and workforce, centrality, vibrancy, and prestige – as their reasons for being downtown,” the study noted.
The main negative in both studies was parking, which respondents said was a problem, mostly because it was a cost burden “for lower wage employees.”
While the emphasis in recent years has been on adding businesses to greater Downtown, in the period from 2006 to 2012, the city was adding a long list of businesses to the redeveloped Menomonee Valley. Many of those companies relocated from the suburbs, including Proven Direct (from Menomonee Falls, 2007), Derse Inc. (Wauwatosa, 2008), Taylor Dynamometer Inc. (New Berlin, 2008), Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc. (Wauwatosa, 2009), J.F. Ahern Co. (Menomonee Falls, 2012), and a more recent addition, Solaris (West Allis, 2015).
“In the western section of the Menomonee Valley, the old Milwaukee Road area, we’re almost completely done,” Barrett notes. “There’s just one partial lot left.”
Much of that was land owned by the city. Future development will come in the eastern portion of the Menomonee Valley, mostly privately held land, for which the city has high hopes. This could help knit together the Menomonee Valley and Walker’s Point, which is attracting companies to the Water Technology Hub near S. 2nd Street.
Besides the companies moving into the city from the suburbs, there are many that have moved from outlying parts of the city to greater Downtown, or who have always been in the area and have decided to expand. One such company is Dohmen, which has been located in the Third Ward since 1858 and moved to a temporary headquarters in Menomonee Falls while it completely redesigned and renovated a building in the Third Ward, which will be its new headquarters.
It’s a the perfect location, says Dohmen spokesperson Tiffany Huth. “We definitely want to attract young, educated people who are interested in the vitality of Downtown.”
The biggest problem in Downtown remains western Wisconsin Ave., which has been a failure for many years, but here, too, a sudden increase in residential development may provide a solution. Four new projects are planned: The Posner Building at N. Plankinton Ave. and W. Wisconsin Ave., the Germania Building on N. Plankinton Ave. and W. Wells St., the old Blue Cross Blue Shield Building on Michigan (The 401), and another development on N. 7th St. and W. Michigan St. (700 Lofts) will all bring more residential units to this part of Downtown. This will bring more young members of the workforce that may attract more businesses and spur more retail as well. Who knows? Maybe it will even provide some momentum to help revive or replace the forlorn Grand Avenue Mall.