Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm
During his first seven months in office, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has been reaching out to the business community in ways that his predecessor, John Norquist, never did.
The outreach effort includes: sending letters to businesses about who to call at City Hall for help; creating new business-retention committees; and having more personal contact with business executives.
When the mayor’s office learns about a company that is moving into Milwaukee, expanding in Milwaukee or celebrating a milestone in Milwaukee, Barrett sends out a signed letter of welcome or congratulations.
The business community is taking notice of the new mayor’s outreach approach.
Richard Mandel, president of Mandel Co., a digital printer located near downtown, said the mayor’s staff contacted him after they read in Small Business Times that the company eventually will need to move from its site in the Park East corridor.
"With the gesture the city made, I’m fairly assured that we will stay in Milwaukee," Mandel said. "My goal was to stay in the redevelopment area (near the Park East freeway)."
Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), said Barrett is taking a different tact than Norquist did to encourage business in the city.
"I think the Norquist administration did a lot of good things to support economic development in this community. He had a good sense of the private sector marketplace," Sheehy said. "I think that Barrett has come in with a good open view of what the city could be doing to build on what the Norquist administration did and in some respects do things differently."
Barrett and Sheehy said the city and MMAC have started working together on two new projects.
The first is sending letters to many of the businesses in the city, to let them know who they can contact within the city on a variety of issues, from concerns on property valuations and assessments to inspections or general questions.
The second of those projects is the creation of a business retention committee. Julie Penman, former Department of City Development (DCD) commissioner under Norquist who now works as associate vice president of business development for Hammell Green Anderson Inc., and Bob Simi, director of business development for CG Schmidt Inc., are co-chairing that committee.
The committee will meet with owners of companies with between 100 and 250 employees, interviewing them in person, Sheehy said.
"We want to find out if they are growing, thinking of expanding or are having issues, so we can build a business plan to help the city retain and attract more business," Sheehy said.
Barrett told SBT the contacts the city can make through both the letters and personal meetings with business owners are vital to ensure the business community knows it is a priority for his administration.
"We want to send the strong message that Milwaukee is open for business," Barrett said. "I firmly believe that what we need is more family-supporting jobs, and I am committed to doing what we can to encourage them to come here and stay here."
Barrett also attended the annual International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas in May with Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, where the pair met with retailers in an attempt to convince them to build stores in Milwaukee.
The message of encouragement is particularly important for businesses that are already in the city, Barrett said, because about 70 percent of Milwaukee’s future growth will likely come from those businesses.
"We need to be sure the businesses know we value their presence, and that’s heartfelt," he said.
Others familiar with the downtown real estate market say the message of encouragement to them and other businesses is getting through loud and clear, even though it’s only a few months old.
Max Rasansky, president and chief executive officer of The Polacheck Co., Inc., said Barrett’s office already has reached out to his company and many others in the city.
"He is reaching out to the real estate community, brokers, developers, the entire community," Rasansky said. "He’s saying ‘Tell me what you think. Help us get to where we need to be.’"
Michael Mervis, assistant to the chairman at Zilber Ltd., said Barrett’s outreach started even before the April election.
"There were meetings with people about how the (Barrett) administration might deal with not just downtown, but business in general in the city," Mervis said. "That started months before the election."
Mervis said one of the main differences between the Barrett and Norquist administrations is that although Norquist had a vision for the city’s long-term development, there were inconsistencies.
"The new urbanism wasn’t the same from week to week or month to month," he said. "It led to some good things, but there wasn’t a degree of certainty of what … to accomplish."
Both Rasansky and Mervis said members of Barrett’s staff – including Frank Cumberbatch, staff liaison to the DCD, Bob Greenstreet, director of planning and design, and recently-named DCD commissioner Rocky Marcoux – are indicators that the city is moving in the right direction on its business relations.
"The mayor and Frank (Cumberbatch) heard the message loud and clear that they need to keep business in Milwaukee," Rasansky said. "We absolutely see him reaching out. Polacheck is proof. His office has reached out, and we’ve accepted. That’s exactly what we need. His approach so far is right on. I support him, and this office supports him."
Mervis said the mayor’s attention to both downtown and residential neighborhoods seems to be the right approach.
"The push to get going on the Park East is critical," he said. "And the continuing development along the river will be great for downtown. They’re bringing people in from the suburbs, getting that critical mass into downtown, and that will make it more vibrant at night."
Mervis also said the efforts to reach out to the business community are giving everyone involved an indication of what might come in the future, as Barrett has only been in office since April.
"The mayor’s job is to get the city on a roll and keep it there," Mervis said. "I think the business community is committed to doing all it can to help that."
October 15, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI