ABB project shows UWM Innovation Campus is for real

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The recent announcement that Zilber Property Group plans to develop a 95,000-square-foot office building for Zurich, Switzerland-based ABB Ltd. is a major boost for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Real Estate Foundation’s Innovation Campus in Wauwatosa.

For years supporters of the Innovation Campus project, located on a 60-acre site northeast of U.S. Highway 45 and Watertown Plank Road, have said that collaboration between industry and UWM researchers and the site’s proximity to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, the Milwaukee County Research Park and the Zoo Interchange, will make it a significant catalyst for economic development in the region.

“This is the most important development for the next four decades for southeastern Wisconsin,” said Mandel Group president Barry Mandel during a panel discussion at the 2011 BizTimes Milwaukee Real Estate and Development Conference.

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The ABB project, the first private sector development planned at the site, provides a major anchor for the Innovation Park project.

“A global company like ABB is not going to do this because they like the area,” said UWM Real Estate foundation president David Gilbert. “They’re doing it based on the best practices of their company on a global basis. This is a well-reasoned decision by a major global corporation that sees this as a great place to do business. It gives credibility to what we have been saying: that business and university collaboration adds value. This is a great business model for research-intensive companies.”

ABB engineers power and automation technologies for a broad base of utility, industrial, and commercial customers. The company currently has operations at 16250 W. Glendale Dr. in New Berlin, but wants to move its office and research operations to create more space for manufacturing operations there, said ABB spokesman Ken Graber. ABB’s Wisconsin operations are primarily involved in low and medium voltage drives, low voltage products and power electronics.

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ABB has added more than 200 jobs in New Berlin during the last three years. The company will move 350 jobs, including more than 100 engineers and scientists, to the new Wauwatosa facility. The opportunity for collaboration and cross-pollination between university and industry researchers made the Innovation Campus an attractive location for ABB, Graber said.

“I have had the opportunity to work with other divisions of ABB in the past and know firsthand how partnering with ABB will bring new and exciting collaborative opportunities for our students and faculty,” said UWM chancellor Michael Lovell.

Construction of the ABB facility is expected to begin this spring and will take a year to complete.

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Other aspects of the Innovation Campus are moving forward. Construction was scheduled to begin shortly after press time for the main road, utilities and public infrastructure for the campus. Also, construction was scheduled to begin soon for the Innovation Accelerator, a $5.4 million, 25,000-square-foot facility on the Innovation Campus. Funded mostly by the federal government, the facility will provide incubator space for companies working on projects with researchers from UWM and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center. The facility will also provide some scientific services not currently available to industry in the region.

The UWM Real Estate Foundation is also trying to get state approval for an interdisciplinary research facility at the Innovation Campus. That facility would house researchers from UWM’s engineering school and numerous science departments.

In addition, Mandel Group is working on a 200-unit market rate apartment development at the Innovation Campus. The project could incorporate the historic Eschweiler buildings there. However, the cost to restore those buildings, which have been vacant for years, is high and Mandel Group is still trying to determine if it can come up with a feasible plan to save any of them.

The apartments will be marketed to engineering and science students and employees in the area, Gilbert said.

“The idea is to create a community of science,” he said.

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