Where Are Top CEOs on City’s Unrest?
The silence is deafening. But Mayor Barrett says they want to help.
Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy doesn’t run a travel agency but he’s been getting “nasty emails,” he says, from people around the country telling him they will never come to Milwaukee given the violence that erupted this past weekend. Media across the nation have done countless stories portraying Milwaukee as a city beset by segregation, social problems and ugly divisions. It’s not travel brochure material.
The arson and violence that occurred in Milwaukee’s central city, whatever the spark that started it, was an obvious cry for help from a impoverished community that badly needs more jobs, more investment, more hope. It’s the kind of situation that might have once prompted public statements of concern by the town’s top business leaders.
But today’s big corporations are global companies. “Rockwell does 40 percent of its business outside the country. For Manpower it’s probably 80 percent,” Sheehy estimates. Customers in the state are a tiny portion of their business, much less customers in the metro area, so how much can these business leaders concern themselves with local problems?
“I have found they will take the time on issues like this,” Sheehy says. But quietly. “Today’s CEOs tend to speak in a different way than they did years ago,” he adds.
“I have had an outpouring of responses from members saying ‘how can I help,” Sheehy says. He notes that one of the top CEOs in town said he would call officials with British Petroleum to make sure a gas station that was torched over the weekend gets reopened.
“If the mayor asked for a meeting on a topic like this I think all the top CEOs would be at the table,” Sheehy says.
Mayor Tom Barrett says he’s already asked for a meeting with MMAC leaders. He notes that the CEOs of Northwestern Mutual and Johnson Controls have reached out to him. “A lot of civic pride has been expressed,” Barrett says, by leaders in the community he’s heard from.
“I’ve talked about what I saw when I was in Israel,” Barrett says. “Their attitude after a bombing was we’re going to be rebuilding right away. That’s what I want to see in this area.”
While emphasizing that the weekend of violence was much smaller than the 1967 riot in Milwaukee, Barrett says its critical to avoid what happened in the aftermath of the riot, when many businesses left the area. “I’m determined to not let that happen.”
The first goal, he says, is to make sure all the businesses that were burned or damaged reopen, and he’s reaching out to all those companies with that in mind. He’s also talking to state legislators about the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), about getting grants from that agency to help rebuild and even expand businesses in the central city.
Sheehy has created a list of long-term goals that could improve life for residents in majority-black North Side neighborhoods, including:
-increase funding for daycare centers so they can improve the quality of their offerings, and if they don’t, reduce their funding or eliminate it (cost still to be determined);
-Fully fund K4 education for low income students in Milwaukee over the next two state budgets (cost $25 million);
-Increase special education funding by 10 percent over the next two state budgets (cost $104 million);
-Close the per pupil gap in funding for Charter and Choice schools compared to public schools ($50 million).
“If those choice and charter schools didn’t exist and those students went back to MPS, that would cost the state another $230 million,” Sheehy notes, arguing for more money to be funneled to the city.
With the exception of day care, which involves federal funding, all of Sheehy’s other goals involve state funding, and the state hasn’t been very friendly to Milwaukee under Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative control.
Sheehy, however, says Walker has indicated that K-12 education is more of a priority. “I think there’s an appetite for some of this,” he says.
But will the business community lean on the legislature to provide more funding to Milwaukee? Will business leaders see the city as an important priority?
Sheey says “we clearly have a lot of work to do as a metro community to understand we have a metro economy.” In short, if Milwaukee falls, the whole metro area will decline.
“The majority of residents in Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee County don’t earn their money in their own county. There’s $11 billion a year in personal income and wages earned in Milwaukee County by residents of these other counties,” Sheehy notes.
“You can’t look at the challenges and assets of the metro area on a county by county basis,” Sheehy adds. “You’ve got to look at Milwaukee as a whole.”
Barrett points to the huge 30th Street Corridor project has something that could lead to jobs for north side residents. “The city has invested millions and it’s ready to go. We need private sector investment from businesses.”
While the long-term goals Sheehy is pushing for could be very helpful, it’s critical that residents in the area that exploded see something happen — some signs of hope — on a short-term basis, whether it’s new businesses, job training or WEDC-funded projects of some kind.
Barrett’s chief of staff Pat Curley calls the situation “an opportunity,” a galvanizing event that might bring everyone together. “It’s a challenge to all of us, to the mayor, the Common Council, the business community and to Governor Walker and the legislature. As the mayor has said, we are all in this together.”
Except that we haven’t been in the past. History will be watching to see how our leaders — how all of us — respond to this crisis.