Local business scene: Foundations for progress, but challenges remain

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:21 pm

It’s a big structure that cost big bucks. And small business owners are expecting big things of it.
It’s the Santiago Calatrava-designed addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum – a $100 million project that has transformed the downtown lakefront.
The addition “has lifted people’s pride” in Milwaukee and presents an incredible opportunity for the city to become cloaked in a new image, says Warren Kreunen, an attorney with the downtown law firm of Von Briesen, Purtell & Roper.
Kreunen, who has often voiced his opinions on the state of the community, made his comments in the recent annual discussion among business news editors and the Council of Small Business Executives (COSBE) – an arm of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
His comments were echoed by others in the gathering, who desperately want to see Milwaukee’s old beer-and-brats image changed. Yes, some of that image has been washed away, but some remains. (And our sausages remain world-class; consider that Milwaukee-based Usinger’s is supplying the frankfurters – approximately 1.6 million of them – for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.)
Helping to wash away the old image are the efforts of community leaders, and the power of big building projects such as the Calatrava, Miller Park (which, while an engineering marvel, still says “beer” to the world, as in Miller Beer), the Midwest Express Center, and the downtown Milwaukee Riverwalk. Such projects can foster an image of high quality on the city, Kreunen says. “If we start insisting on that image of excellence, it will do a lot for the community,” he says.
Not everyone outside the city holds the beer-and-brats image; some have none. When fellow COSBE director Mark Kannenberg of RBP Chemical hosted 50 out-of-towners earlier this year, “they were incredibly impressed; they were flabbergasted” by how great things are here, he related.
While the business leaders cite those great projects and the potential offered of the structures in building a new image for Milwaukee, they’re anxious to see dramatic change in the business climate here, echoing comments made at last year’s gathering. There was praise for Commissioner Julie Penman’s Milwaukee Department of City Development, called an “aggressive” partner in business development.
At the same time, Kannenberg, who frequently travels to other cities for business, called Milwaukee a “tough environment to do business in” compared to those other cities.
Developer Scott Humber said he is regularly “amazed and saddened” to see progressive development happening elsewhere. He did praise Glendale’s aggressive stance on development, citing that Milwaukee suburb’s recent Silver Spring Drive redevelopment, the Green Bay Avenue redevelopment, and the recently announced plans to re-create Bayshore Mall. Humber, a Whitefish Bay resident, lamented that his own village hasn’t had the same vision for the portion of Silver Spring Drive within its boundaries.
Arnold Leas of Wellington Management also called this a tough town to do business in, saying “We do most of our business out of state.” While business opportunities are slim for him here, “We get welcomed with open arms elsewhere.”
The COSBE directors were not just passing the blame, though. A number of its members suggested that part of the problem was a lack of involvement by business persons in community issues and in government. Among the busy days of small business owners, “we don’t often see it as our job to be civic leaders,” said Mike Mahoney, president of Park Bank.
Bill Mielke’s firm, Ruekert & Mielke, does most of its engineering work for municipalities. He’s seen a loss of business involvement in government, too, in his years of regularly attending government meetings. “I am appalled at the lack of business decisions that are made with our tax dollars,” Mielke said, adding that business people and their related money-management skills have disappeared from government boards, “and we’re paying for that.”
Business persons aren’t totally absent from government posts and committees. Businessman George Watts fared surprisingly well in Milwaukee’s last mayoral election. But the city’s last businessperson/mayor tragically didn’t last long in office, having been killed in action in World War II.
On another note, many of the COSBE directors related how their firms have reduced health-care benefits or have asked employees to pay a higher portion of the cost of coverage.
Dec. 21, 2001 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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