Milwaukee needs A New Gateway

A business executive flies into Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport for the first time. He wants to take a look around, because he is prospecting for a site for a new distribution center that his company needs to build somewhere in the Midwest.

He rents a car and drives out of the airport. He has booked a room at an airport hotel. He drives onto Howell Avenue and begins to head south. He encounters several aging hotels, a Motel 6, a Best Western, a Super 8 and a Clarion hotel. He enters the Howell Avenue tunnel under the runway and comes out on the other side, where he is greeted by a strip club, a gas station and some older, out-of-place houses on an otherwise dated commercial strip.

An hour later, another business executive flies into Milwaukee for a corporate meeting. She has a room reserved in a downtown Milwaukee hotel. She hops into a cab. The cab could take her on a garden variety freeway ramp toward Interstate 94, or the cab could take her onto Howell Avenue and turn north, past the old Red Carpet Hotel, now known as the Wyndham Milwaukee Airport Hotel. The cab heads west on Layton Avenue past the Dunkin Donuts, the KFC, the Ponderosa, the Taco Bell and the Howard Johnson’s.

A third traveler flies into Milwaukee for an executive-level job interview. He takes a cab that drives him east on Layton, past a couple of small used car dealers and a few bars, toward the Lake Parkway.

These hypothetical scenarios portray the first impressions people have of Milwaukee when they fly into General Mitchell International Airport: tired, nondescript, unremarkable buildings, a few trailer parks, fast-food chain restaurants and outdated hotels.

It looks as if time has stopped on Howell Avenue.

“(The area around the airport) is the first impression that our visitors have (of Milwaukee),” said Doug Neilson, president and chief executive officer of Visit Milwaukee. “Certainly, it needs work. Layton and Howell leaves a lot to be desired. It certainly would be nice to have the impression and the feeling that things are being taken care of.”

Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, the commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development, acknowledges that much of the land around the airport is not being put to the highest and best use.

“It’s not very pedestrian-friendly,” Marcoux said. “It’s not uniform in how it presents itself to the street. There is no guiding concept. When you drive out of the airport, it’s just such a mixed bag. There’s no continuity. It’s as if there wasn’t a plan. That’s because there was no plan.”

Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski represents the part of the city around the airport. He has formed a committee with representatives from each of the municipalities near the airport to work on efforts to improve the area and attract development.

“It’s sort of under-developed compared to other places (near airports) around the world,” Witkowski said. “I haven’t seen the city of Milwaukee put any effort into development around the airport. Whatever has happened has just happened.”

Greg Groth, founder and chairman of Tax Airfreight Inc., a trucking and logistics firm at 5975 S. Howell Ave., has watched the area near the airport for a long time.

“I grew up, for a good part of my childhood, on top of a hill north of the airport,” he said. “I was always connected to the airport. And over these years, I’m going to be 60 years old, the area hasn’t changed that much. It’s stagnated. Because it’s an airport so close to the residential and commercial area, it’s more difficult for other companies to get established there.”

Groth said General Mitchell International Airport is one of the nicer airports he has seen. However, his impressions of the area don’t extend much past the airport itself.

“Once you pull out onto the airport spur (of I-94), Howell or head south toward Racine, it’s just kind of ‘blah,'” he said.

Jaime Maliszewski, president of Reliable Plating Works, 5230 S. 13th St., says the area does not provide a good first impression of Milwaukee to visitors.

“When you bring customers in, they will see that the town looks like it’s been beat up a little, like it needs a shot in the arm,” Maliszewski said. “You try to direct them to certain areas. I try to keep them on Layton (Avenue) more than anything else. That’s starting to look better. But you’re somewhat limited.”

However, a group of business owners located around the airport is determined to improve the area.

The Airport Gateway Business Association, a group of business owners and top managers of companies located near the airport, was formed  in late 2005.

The intent was to raise the bar for all commercial properties along Layton and Howell avenues.

“It got started because Layton and Howell didn’t look so hot,” said Tom Rave, who was recently named AGBA’s executive director. “The local business people intentionally don’t go to I-94 northbound. They go to I-794 and take that way, especially with new people.”

AGBA formed the Airport Gateway Business Improvement District (BID) in 2006. BIDs are capable of levying taxes on commercial properties within their boundaries, with the funds to be used for mutual improvements, such as street cleaning, plantings, decorative signage and even private security.

“There are more than 460 commercial properties in the (airport) district in Milwaukee,” Rave said. “And they have about $490 million in assessed value.”

AGBA’s members want to improve the airport area’s image, but they do not want to change many of the businesses that are there, Rave said, especially the significant number of trucking and logistics firms. In fact, the area’s proximity to air, road and water transportation is something the group plans to help generate additional development there.

“When you build something, how do you get it out of here? By air, truck or port.” Rave said. “That’s a concept we want to use for the area from an economic development standpoint.”

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