Tim Sheehy

A Common Dream for Metro Milwaukee

Support for a new NBA arena can and should unite us as fellow Milwaukeeans.

“No city can survive without a common dream”

                   -Jamie Learner, former Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil

“Basketball is an urban game, it belongs in the city”

               John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee, United States

BMO Harris Bradley Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

BMO Harris Bradley Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

What on earth do Curitiba, Brazil and Milwaukee have in common? And what does all this have to do with the prospects for a new NBA arena?

If you have been watching the World Cup, you may have noted Curitiba as one of the host cities.  It is the 4th largest metro in Brazil, with a city population equivalent to metro Milwaukee’s population at 1.7 million people. Its per capita income is 60 percent higher than the average in Brazil. Curitiba has been recognized for its urban development, its investment in cultural and entertainment assets, and its vision. Curitiba’s Mayor Jamie Learner was noted by Time Magazine as one of the world’s most influential thinkers.

As Learner stated at a summit this month on the future of urban regions, “No city can survive without a common dream.” But dreams of prosperity generally don’t exist for those without a high-school degree, many living in poverty, in single-parent families. Milwaukee may survive as a region, but we certainly will not thrive with a chasm between those with dreams and those without.

What works in Curitiba does translate to Milwaukee. You need a common dream, a vision where all citizens can see a path towards a brighter future. Hosting a World Cup does not pave Curitiba’s path, but it does help cement its bond with its citizens.

First Priority: Educated Citizens

So job one for Milwaukee is to put people on a path to realize their dreams, and build a base of talent that becomes a draw for jobs. Currently, too many people are on the sidelines due to the lack of a functional high school degree. For starters, a significant number of the 120,000 K-12 students in the city are lost as a resource for filling Milwaukee’s talent needs. A large majority are children of color and part of Milwaukee’s fastest growing demographic. We are, and should be, spending $1,458,000,000 per year to educate these future leaders.In addition, we have a number of adults that require remediation and better preparation for the workforce. I could do an entire column on how to more effectively spend these education dollars, but for now let me say, we should be spending more, especially on special education and early childhood development. Education funding outstrips our need for a new NBA arena or additional funding for cultural assets.

To compete Milwaukee needs talent

More than half the world’s population lives in an urban market, and that is increasing.  “City-states” or metropolitan regions seem most destined to determine the economic fates of the countries in which they reside. Investable capital has never been more fluid, and a talented workforce has never been more mobile.

If Milwaukee is to thrive, it will have to make the kind of investments needed to keep this place globally attractive as a location for capital investment. As Jeff Joerres, the executive chairman of global employer ManpowerGroup has stated, the premium placed on a talented workforce has ushered in the “human age,” an era where “economies compete and survive based mainly on talent.” So to be prosperous, in addition to growing our own talent, Milwaukee must become “magnetic” when it comes to its ability to retain and attract the talented workforce that will drive business decisions.

We start, demographically, behind the eight ball. Between 2014 and 2020, metro Milwaukee will experience an anemic increase of .8% in its workforce (ages 15-69), or a total increase of 13,000 people. We know that because it still takes 18 years to produce an 18-year-old. During this same time frame, given modest growth and projected retirements in our job market, available jobs will grow by 7 percent, producing 63,000 more jobs.  In theory that’s a gap of 50,000 warm bodies. I say in theory, because if we don’t have the people, we will not have the jobs, they will flow elsewhere.

Urban settings have proven to be highly appealing to the young talent that Milwaukee will need to draw upon, through relocations, boomerangs returning home, and those choosing to stay here. The metro area is home, literally, to hundreds of thousands of Millennials, those 25-34 who own or rent 105,000 housing units in the region. About 73 percent of this age group live in Milwaukee County.  They can provide some of the workers that talent-hungry global employers seek, and their numbers could grow. But will they? As one of Milwaukee’s young professionals Deanna Singh from the Burke Foundation, put it recently “If you want people to live here, and work here, they need to be able to play here” (For more views see the video below)

Milwaukee’s former Mayor John Norquist had an exquisite understanding of the value of urban centers and what made them work (from sidewalk restaurants to the riverwalk, from dense housing to historic re-development).  Norquist was fond of saying at our annual Bucks lunch that “basketball is an urban game, it belongs in the city.” He had a solid understanding of what makes urban regions attractive. Now, not everyone watches or even cares for NBA basketball. It is just one part of the lifestyle that makes Milwaukee’s urban metro “play here” option so diversely successful.  No, I am not expecting World Cup fervor to overtake Milwaukee with a winning Bucks team, but outside of the Brewers, rare is the call that generates a common bond in the community like a professional team bearing the hometown name.

Milwaukee’s Millennials, along with many others in the community value the cultural, entertainment, and recreational assets supported by public funding.  I am certain that they also want to see their younger urban counterparts educated and put on path where they can achieve their dreams. Urban regions that want to be attractive can and must do both. They must invest in range of assets that speak to a diversity of interests like great schools, good transportation options, parks, health care, stadiums, a sustainable environment, performing arts, museums and housing.

Making a proportional investment in culture and entertainment

It is in that context that I am asking you to consider the value of spending a reasonable amount of public funding on a new entertainment center. A center that will host the Bucks, benefit Marquette, provide a concert venue, serve as a public meeting space, and attract new spending to the region.

The question before Milwaukee is the appropriateness of enhancing the “play here” portion of our value proposition. If we want this community to compete for higher levels of prosperity, the “play here” portion must be part of the equation.

For example, we invest $1,458,000,000 annually in tax dollars for K-12 education in the city of Milwaukee. We invest $61,000,000 per year in tax dollars to support all our major cultural attractions in Milwaukee County, including the park system, including Miller Park. About four percent of what we spend on education. On a per capita basis we spend about $50 per year on our public cultural and entertainment assets. Using a method similar to Miller Park it would cost less than an additional $10 annually to support the partial financing of a new arena. No single taxpayer benefits directly from all of these expenditures, but as a community we share in the benefits.

Urban and Suburban livability help us compete

The diversity and richness of its offerings is at the heart of what make’s metro living… well, unique and desirable.  In the short span of a few weeks Greater Milwaukee offered pro-volleyball in an outstanding county park, concerts on the green in Ozaukee, national musical talent at Summerfest, boat rentals on the river, picnics and paddle-boarding in Pewaukee, bike races down a tree lined street, an art fair on the lakefront and tailgating at Miller Park. This does not exist in every city. This is a competitive advantage for metropolitan Milwaukee.

Real disagreements exist in metro Milwaukee about how to achieve a common dream. We do in fact live in distinct neighborhoods. Often those arbitrary boundaries are separated by race and income. Our views become too parochial. Decision making is paralyzed by geography and lacks recognition that this region is functionally one economy. In the four-county metro area, only in Milwaukee County do a slim majority of the residents live and work in the same county.

The region’s interpersonal relationships are critical to its future as a thriving urban economy. No one would accuse former Mayor Norquist of a love affair with the suburbs. He often picked on Bluemound Rd. as an example of suburban misused-development. But he had it right when he noted it was not the first place you take an out-of-town visitor. The preferences of living options in this region should not be thrown back and forth between city and suburb like a food fight, but recognized for what they are-choices that support a variety of lifestyles. We should not go to war over them. Our fight is to successfully compete against other regions around the globe by presenting a compelling case for investing here — in this region.

Public/private partnerships make us more attractive

But, you may say, we can’t have public dollars used to support private businesses or professional sports! There are numerous examples of public venues being leveraged for private uses. Thousands of people enjoyed Bradford Beach this past weekend to spend money around a professional volleyball match (the winners made money), private restaurants paid rent to public entities, and many who had never been to Bradford Beach spent money generating additional tax dollars. A public beach used for a for-profit benefit! But there were winners all around.  Hundreds of thousands enjoy Summerfest every year (and Bruno Mars took home a nice fee), and we rave about it, as we should. Tens of thousands of school children go through the public museums sponsored by corporations. In many, many ways public/private partnerships enhance and extend these public assets to our citizens.

Decision time: Investing in our livability will improve our prosperity

So we have a decision to make.  If we don’t have a new arena by 2018 (which has a $200 million private sector commitment to start), we will not have an NBA team playing in Milwaukee. We will lose this important asset, and lose forever the revenue generated, jobs associated, and the global brand value of being an NBA market. We taxpayers and citizens will be left with an aging, cost-increasing, concert-shedding, under-utilized facility — in the heart of downtown — and good luck with the convention business.

Beyond this issue, the region has neglected its care, maintenance, and vision for its cultural institutions. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is supporting the regional Cultural and Entertainment Capital Needs Task Force to plow new ground and make recommendations on potential dedicated funding sources for the Zoo, Parks, Art Museum, Performing Arts Center, and Public Museum.  Do we as citizens not see the value of these assets to Milwaukee’s live, learn, work and play proposition?

From my position, charged with “selling” metro Milwaukee every day, I can say that Milwaukee is an outstanding product to sell, but if we don’t invest in our livability we will risk our enviable position.

Finally, I have been in too many discussions where public funding for a new arena is put in the box of “stadiums are for the wealthy vs. more should done for poor kids.” While I have tried to make the case here for proportional investment in assets that enhance the region’s attractiveness and livability, that argument still divides our aspirations. Do poor kids not enjoy a concert, or see inspiration at an art museum, are they not fans that root for their teams? Is there no case for investing in places and events that give us a common experience and bond? Scott Williams, a young African American business leader, said it well: “With local sports teams it does not matter the economic class, race, religion or gender, we all can become fans”.

Now a new arena may not hang the moon for Milwaukee’s future, but might be worth $10 bucks a year in taxes.

Tim Sheehy is president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce

Categories: Op-Ed, Real Estate

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