Every time I drive down Capitol Drive in Milwaukee between North 31st and 35th streets, I think of my grandfather.
Why? Because that’s where A.O. Smith once had a huge manufacturing complex, with thousands of employees, that produced millions of automobile frames. One of those employees was my grandfather, who worked there for much of his life.
Long after my grandfather retired, A.O. Smith sold its automotive products business to Tower International in 1997. Tower shut down the Capitol Drive complex in 2006.
The closure of the former A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive manufacturing complex left a huge void in Milwaukee’s central city, and was one of the most prominent of numerous employers that left during the area’s decline.
Today, Milwaukee faces a daunting challenge: how to bring much-needed jobs back to create opportunities for an impoverished central city population that desperately needs them. The high crime rate and other social problems in the central city make that extremely difficult. Economic opportunities could help reduce crime and would improve the neighborhoods, but few businesses want to operate in a high-crime, impoverished area. The cover story of this edition of BizTimes Milwaukee goes into great detail about the massive challenge of attracting jobs to the central city. If you haven’t already, give it a read.
At the heart of their efforts to attract jobs, city officials are working to transform much of the former A.O. Smith site into Century City Business Park. In April, the first new building in the business park was completed by Fox Point-based General Capital Group. But it remains empty.
The good news is there have been some glimmers of hope recently for Century City.
Spanish train company Talgo has decided to return to Milwaukee to overhaul rail vehicles for Los Angeles. The company left Milwaukee after Gov. Scott Walker canceled the high-speed rail project from Milwaukee to Madison and the state refused to pay for trains it had ordered when Jim Doyle was governor. Talgo sued the state, which had to pay the company about $10 million to end the dispute. Despite the bad experience the company had with the state, city officials deserve credit for maintaining a relationship with Talgo and urging the company to return. Now it is, and city officials expect 25 to 30 people will work there.
Also, a Turkish firm partnering with Milwaukee-based Rev Group Inc. was recently named a finalist for a contract to build 180,000 vehicles for the U.S. Postal Service. Prototypes of the vehicles will be built at Century City by Rev Group. If the firm and its partner, Karsan, win the contract, they could create up to 2,500 jobs to build the vehicles at Century City.
Hopefully, this is the start of something big for these companies at Century City. The Postal Service contract would be huge, even if Rev Group just gets a portion of it, which is a possibility. Talgo’s return is great, and hopefully the company gets more contracts, creates more jobs and is here for the long haul.
For Milwaukee’s sake, let’s hope for the best.