Building an Aerotropolis in Milwaukee
What would an aerotropolis bring to Milwaukee? What does Milwaukee need to do to get there? Better yet, what is an aerotropolis? I recently completed reading Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next by Greg Lindsay and John Kasarda, and couldn’t help but continually think about how the idea of an aerotropolis fits with Milwaukee.
According to leader of the aerotropolis movement, John Kasarda, “an aerotropolis is basically an airport-integrated region, extending as far as sixty miles from the inner clusters of hotels, offices, distribution, and logistics facilities.” My initial reaction when I first heard of the idea of an aerotropolis coming to Milwaukee was that it would be merely be a tool used to subsidized sprawl-patterned warehouse development near General Mitchell International Airport. After reading the book (review coming later this week), I remain leery of a potential outcome similar to that locally, but now know that the idea encompasses far more than just using land near the airport for warehouses.
So how does Milwaukee maximize the utility of General Mitchell? It seems incentivizing logistics operations, both big and small, to locate near the airport and making land available for them to do so is a logical first step. To maximize the value of those companies that locate near the airport, it should be made as easy as possible for them to get to the airport, but strong consideration should be given to encouraging a compact-development pattern that maximizes available space, allows transit to best serve the area, and overall makes the area more attractive. The same compact-development pattern should be applied to new hotels and other developments near the airport, this will serve to make the area more visually attractive and make it easier to provide the amenities that will attract individuals and businesses to the hub of the aerotropolis.
Ultimately, planning for orderly development around the airport will make the region as a whole derive more economic benefits from the airport. Kasarda advocates for development that is locally dense and globally connected, the density portion of which is currently missing from the area around the Milwaukee airport. By building more compactly near the airport tax revenues from the area will be maximized. Likewise, potential future rail or express bus connections (possibly via accelerated service on the proposed Milwaukee Streetcar) to downtown will have a much higher utility by providing access to thousands more jobs than just at the airport itself. Providing better multi-modal connections will not only increase the options for Milwaukeeans looking to access the airport or nearby jobs, but will encourage more visitors by reducing the cost of their trip by eliminating the need to rent a car. Compact, transit-oriented development patterns are what Kasarda is advocating other cities use (the book uses Mesa, AZ as an example), and Milwaukee would be wise to take advantage of them.
Key Points on the Horizon for an Aerotropolis in Milwaukee
Relocate downtown USPS central facility to the airport
The groundwork is already underway for this, but it’s going to benefit three parties. One, USPS should benefit from a new modern facility close to the airport. Two, the Gateway to Milwaukee district will land a large new employer. Three, downtown Milwaukee will have new riverfront land available for development adjacent to the recently renovated Milwaukee Intermodal Station and along the proposed Milwaukee Streetcar system.
Better connect downtown with the airport
Interstate 94 currently connects General Mitchell International Airport with downtown Milwaukee (the largest jobs hub in the state). Those coming from out-of-town via the airport obviously don’t have cars and those in Milwaukee heading to the airport may not wish to pay to park them. Other connections are needed beyond the far too slow Route 80 bus and expensive airport shuttles. Lindsay refers to the failure of most American cities to connect their airports to downtown with trains as something that will go down “as yet another of our great infrastructure blunders.” Kasarda advocates for rail connections because every stop on the way to the airport becomes a transit-oriented development opportunity that maximizes the value of the airport. A rail connection to downtown makes no sense until there is rail service throughout downtown from the Milwaukee Streetcar, but once that system is in the ground it seems wise to invest in providing more express service between the airport and downtown. Portland may be the best example of this I’ve seen in person, where the light rail stop at the airport is as accessible as a flight gate and provides a single seat ride into downtown.
Continue to foster increased competition at the airport
Milwaukee has benefited from competition between Southwest and AirTran. Despite their coming merger, airport officials should seek out any way possible to keep the competition between airlines going. Ridership at General Mitchell is up thanks to lower fares from increased competition, and that’s good for Milwaukee as a whole.
Foster more inter-city passenger rail connectivity with the airport (Amtrak Hiawatha line expansion)
The aerotropolis concept took a hit when Governor Scott Walker refused the high-speed rail funds to expand the Hiawatha line to Madison, and plan for expansion to the Twin Cities. This would have provided passenger rail connectivity between downtown Madison, Watertown, Oconomowoc, and Brookfield with General Mitchell. This would have made it easier for Wisconsinites to fly out of General Mitchell, and made it more attractive for tourists to fly in. Thankfully the Amtrak Hiawatha Service connection still links the airport with Chicago and its north shore suburbs, encouraging passengers to avoid the congestion of O’Hare and Midway for the comforts of the Recombulation Area.
Be strategic and targeted with any tax incentives (AKA avoid the St. Louis debacle)
Gateway to Milwaukee definitely should provide incentives for firms with air-based logistical components to locate their the airport, similar to how the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee 7 have targeted “green” firms such as Helios and Ingeteam to locate in the Menomonee Valley. These incentives should be individually targeted through, and restricted to firms utilizing the airport. Missouri, and St. Louis in particular, has a mess on its hands in regard to a proposed state tax incentive program for an aerotropolis development targeted at Chinese Air Freight that is ripe for abuse many are arguing.
Foster connectivity with the Port of Milwaukee
Wherever possible connectivity with the Port of Milwaukee should be marketed as a key component of Milwaukee’s aerotropolis development strategy. Companies that have needs that involve just-in-time delivery by air, as well as massive parts delivered by water could take advantage of the proximity the port and airport have to one another in Milwaukee via Interstate 794 and the Lake Parkway.
I could spend another 1,000 words advocating for various nuances around the concept of a Milwaukee aerotropolis, but instead I’ll end by applauding the regional efforts underway by the Gateway to Milwaukee Aerotropolis initiative which has support from the business community as well as the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, South Milwaukee, Cudahy, St. Francis, Greenfield, Greendale, Franklin, Oak Creek.