Unemployment in Wisconsin is below 3 percent, U.S. economic growth is increasing and downtown Milwaukee has boomed, as have nearby neighborhoods and several suburban areas.
But Milwaukee’s central city is still struggling to attract businesses and jobs. Although many employers say they can’t find workers, most steer clear of operating in the central city, where many residents need a job.
Why? Areas with high crime rates and poverty make undesirable business locations. They are seen as risky, especially by lenders. Higher taxes and some regulations in the city don’t help. Racial fears/tensions or just plain racism can’t be ignored, either.
So it was a big deal when Good City Brewing LLC, founded in 2016 on the East Side, announced it will buy the 53,160-square-foot Century City building at North 31st Street and West Capitol Drive for its corporate offices, warehousing and potentially its production brewing.
The building, co-developed by General Capital Group LLP and the City of Milwaukee, was completed in 2016 but has sat vacant ever since.
Century City is a business park at the former A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive site where thousands once worked. Now it includes the future Good City building, two former A.O. Smith Corp. buildings, including one occupied by Talgo Inc., and 45 vacant acres.
Mayor Tom Barrett recently sent a letter to Amazon.com chief executive officer Jeff Bezos encouraging the company to establish operations in Milwaukee’s central city. Such a move would be a “game-changer” said Barrett, who pointed out that Amazon and other companies typically place distribution centers outside of low-income areas, leaving people who need jobs disconnected from job opportunities.
Amazon considered Century City for a distribution center, but instead plans to build one in Oak Creek, according to our sources. The facility will have more than 1,000 jobs.
It’s difficult to attract large, bottom-line-driven, publicly-held corporations, which have to answer to shareholders, to take the risk of doing business in the central city. Those firms are risk-averse and if they, like Amazon, aren’t based here, they have no loyalty to Milwaukee.
Local businesses, like Good City, with owners whose values include a desire to make Milwaukee a better place, are a better bet to attract to the central city. But even that won’t be easy. Supporting local entrepreneurs, especially minorities, who want to do business in Milwaukee is crucial. That’s why the Sherman Phoenix is one of the most important economic development projects in the city right now.
Also, local and state government should move as many of their own operations into the central city as possible. Why does the city still have facilities in the Menomonee Valley, which is attracting plenty of private-sector development?
Nonprofits that serve the central city also should consider moving their operations there. It’s great to see Bader Philanthropies moving from the Third Ward to Harambee.
Revitalizing the central city will take massive effort on multiple fronts.