Milwaukee Opens the Global Water Center

Milwaukee will make its biggest splash yet in its quest to become the world’s Silicon Valley of freshwater research and technology when the Global Water Center opens this month.

The first-of-its-kind facility at 247 Freshwater Way will celebrate grand opening activities Sept.  9-12.

“This is a major milestone for us, and it’s a major milestone for putting us on the world stage,” said Rich Meeusen, the Milwaukee Water Council’s co-founder and co-chair, who also is the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Badger Meter Inc.

Water Council CEO Dean Amhaus said the opening of the Global Water Center is the most important step for the Water Council since it began in 2007.

“There really isn’t anything like this in the United States, maybe even in the world,” he said. “This is – by far – the biggest venture that we’ve done.”

Twenty-five organizations will have offices in the seven-floor building when it opens. The roster of tenants at the Global Water Center includes a mix of international corporations, academic institutions, startup businesses and support organizations.

One of the support organizations is the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), which is moving its entire operation into the new building’s fourth floor. Julia Taylor, president at the GMC and treasurer of the Water Council, sees the Global Water Center as a major game-changer for the city.

“This building really is a physical embodiment of Milwaukee being a world water hub,” she said. “It’s going to be a real showcase. It’s an important turning point for Milwaukee, to get this building. It puts us on the map.”

Charles Fishman, author of the book, “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water,” said the city of Milwaukee is becoming synonymous with water.

“No one has tried to do in a really forceful, bold fashion what Milwaukee is doing,” he said.

Meeusen, Amhaus and Paul Jones, the former CEO of A.O. Smith and a co-founder and co-chair of the Water Council, were the driving forces behind the $22 million project to revitalize the 107-year-old building in the Walker’s Point neighborhood into what is now the Global Water Center.

Meeusen said the idea for the building came in 2010, after he visited an Israeli facility – Kinrot – a water technology facility funded by the Israeli government that provides free rent to entrepreneurs.

“On the long flight home, I started thinking about it and saying, “We could do something like this in Milwaukee,”” said Meeusen. “The benefit of that was, for me to visit 12 entrepreneurs on water technology in Europe, I’d have to fly to 12 cities. But in Israel, I went to one city, one building, and it was all there. I thought it would be great if we had something like that in the U.S. and in Milwaukee. I came back and I said to Dean, “I want to do a building, but I want to do it on steroids.””

Ultimately, this thinking, along with the Water Council’s broad group of stakeholders, led to the mix of tenants at the building that not only includes organizations that have been a part of the project since the beginning, but companies such as Milwaukee-based Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, which will provide legal services, and Wauwatosa-based Wipfli LLP, which will provide accounting services.

Larger companies such as West Milwaukee-based Rexnord Corp., Franklin Park, Ill.-based Sloan Valve Co., and Veolia Water North America have offices in the building. The state government is represented there, in the form of the Wisconsin Economic Development Council (WEDC), which moved its Milwaukee office to the new building.

Academia is represented in the form of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, the first graduate school in the nation dedicated solely to the study of freshwater.

Entrepreneurial endeavors will have a strong presence at the Global Water Center, as well. The Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator is a new program that has launched through the opening of the building, where four startup companies – Microbe Detectives (Madison), Vegetal i.D. (France), H2Oscore (Milwaukee) and Noah Technologies (Port Washington) – have each been awarded $50,000 grants from the WEDC to help grow their respective businesses.

Two more young companies – Alga Bionics and Hanging Gardens, both based in the Milwaukee area – also have their offices at the building and have access to its facilities.

The Global Water Center is now more than 75 percent leased. The only floor yet to be occupied is the sixth floor, where the grand opening festivities will take place.

Fostering a spirit of collaboration between all entities housed in the building is a major priority for the Water Council.

“We’re this very unique enterprise that’s combining economic talent and technology development all under one roof,” said Amhaus.

“One of the benefits of being in that building is that my people are going to be able to interact with the other people in the building, share ideas,” said Meeusen. “You get creativity from synergy, bringing together diverse ideas and diverse people, and we believe that that’s something we can achieve in that building. The most exciting part of that building, to me, is three tables that are just inside of the door next to a coffee machine. Forget about whatever’s going on in that building, I wonder what kind of conversations and ideas are going to be bandied about over those tables.”

In addition to the café lounge on the first floor, there will also be a co-working space on the fifth floor modeled after the Hudson Business Lounge.

The Global Water Center will feature an array of high-tech equipment, much of which is available to be used by all tenants. It’s a stark technological upgrade from the building’s previous– storing seat belts.

Now, the building is home to a $500,000 state-of-the-art flow lab, a 45-person lecture hall auditorium, an international video conferencing room, research and development facilities for both Badger Meter and A.O. Smith (each with 2,300 feet of space), a café lounge and a gallery space to showcase different global water issues and the work of the building’s tenants.

And that’s just the first floor.

Commercialization is key

The seventh floor – occupied by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences – includes several different laboratories and testing areas featuring highly advanced technology, including 3D laser imaging.

David Garman, dean of the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, said a variety of projects already underway will be tested for commercialization on that floor. Several different imaging projects, pollution tracking devices, water sampling techniques, and a “self-regulating mechanical jellyfish” are just a few of the examples of the work being done on the seventh floor.

“With school starting up, there will be students and faculty up there,” Amhaus said. “What’s important is that they’re not only doing any research up there; it’s commercialization. That’s a really important distinction for us and for the people that are up there. The research goes on at the School of Freshwater Sciences. When you are working in this building, you are thinking commercialization – how we can make a product or service we can sell? To have that mindset is important.”

“It’s one further step of cementing the relationship between all the different aspects of the water industry in Milwaukee,” said Garman.

“Just the beginning”

“What we keep trying to explain to people is that this is just the beginning,” said Ryan Matthews, communications and development associate at the Water Council. “This is the cornerstone of the whole project.”

The Water Council’s larger project extends west from the building into Reed Street Yards, 17 acres of undeveloped land extending from Third Street – the Global Water Center’s western border – to the Sixth Street Viaduct.

“I will be disappointed if five years from now, we don’t have five or six companies on the Reed Street Yards that grew out of the Global Water Center,” said Jones. “We have a water cluster in southeastern Wisconsin, and I’d like to see a mini-cluster right around the Global Water Center that includes Reed Street Yards.”

The construction of the infrastructure in Reed Street Yards began in mid-August. Developer Michael Weiss said that part of the construction should be completed this fall.

“We’re in a position where if somebody wanted to do a project in the park, we could have something under construction as early as next spring,” said Weiss.

Meeusen, Jones, Amhaus and Taylor all expressed optimism for the potential of a company outgrowing its space and breaking ground in Reed Street Yards within the next year.

The area was established by the city as a tax incremental finance (TIF) district, which in part was triggered by the GMC’s move to the Global Water Center, said Taylor.

“We wanted to find a location to provide land to put a water technology park together,” said Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the department of city development. “In the history of the city, that part of the city has never really been developed. It’s rare to have that kind of land that’s in such proximity to the central business district that hasn’t been developed.”

In addition to establishing the TIF district, Marcoux said the city is investing $7 million in infrastructure costs. Road construction will begin shortly, and the infrastructure construction will include a riverwalk.

Marcoux also said Reed Street Yards is in “the heart of one of the most successful parts of the city,” adjacent to the Historic Third Ward and right in the Walker’s Point neighborhood near newer hotspots such as the Harley-Davidson Museum and the Iron Horse Hotel.

Amhaus said the impact the Global Water Center is having on the neighborhood that surrounds it is already evident.

“What we wanted to do is we wanted to have a bigger impact than upon just ourselves,” he said. “We hoped that we could help impact a neighborhood,” Amhaus said.

The neighborhood does, however, contain many buildings that are currently vacant, but Meeusen sees opportunity there, as well.

“A lot of these existing vacant buildings could become water technology buildings,” said Meeusen. “Then, if someone comes down and wants to construct something, we have the Reed Street Yards. We have both options.”

The Water Council will be developing systems within Reed Street Yards to be a smaller-scale showcase of water efficiency and sustainability, one that could be replicated on larger scales elsewhere.

Another of these smaller-scale showcases in Reed Street Yards will be a “micro water utility,” said Amhaus.

“Everything that you can do on a micro water utility, you can do on a large scale city,” said Matthews. “It’s going to basically be a scaled-down sewage and water treatment facility. You can think of it as an enormous laboratory. Our goal is to have absolutely zero runoff back into the sewage system.”

“There will be a great opportunity to build an ecosystem out and manage it,” said Taylor.

“Water problems are becoming far more common and far more urgent than at any point in the last 100 years,” said Fishman. “But just at the moment that these problems are becoming common, there is a blossoming of water innovation and research and opportunities unlike anything we’ve seen in 100 years. We’re on the verge of a revolution for water, the way we’ve seen for computing or medicine.”

Meeusen said part of the work being done by the Water Council is to find ways to develop new technologies and new products that can be put to use to solve big problems.

“We live in a world where a child dies every 20 seconds from lack of fresh water,” Meeusen said. “Part of the solution to that problem is technology. We believe we have the companies and the talent in this region to help solve that problem. I’m very interested in seeing the solutions to that problem. The solutions of the world’s water problems fall into three things: policies, behavior and technology. Between those three things, we should be able to address our water problems.”

Fishman said a more localized approach to tackling those problems provides opportunities to tackle the world’s water problems, and that the Water Council is an example of these types of effort.

“All water problems are local and most of them are solvable and solvable right where they’re happening. And that’s good news. And that’s good news for Milwaukee’s Global Water Center,” Fishman said.

From the beginning, the Water Council was thinking internationally, said Amhaus, and the reach of the building that extends beyond borders will soon be seen after its opening. Amhaus said delegations from China, India, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Israel will all be visiting the Global Water Center in the coming months.

“Dean has international visitors coming just about every week between now and the end of the year,” said Jones. “There’s a lot of visibility on Milwaukee right now around the world.”

According to a June article in The Atlantic Cities, 194 water-related companies call the 11-county area around Milwaukee home. Meeusen said the existence of the building will allow opportunities to showcase the robust water industry here.

“Before we had a building, I used to say, “You know what we need in Milwaukee? We need a Louvre,”” said Meeusen. “When I go to Paris, they drive you around and say, ‘Paris is the world center of art. Trust me, there’s art going on in these buildings around you.’ But unless you tour every building, you don’t know if there’s art going on. But then they take you to the Louvre, and you go, ‘Wow! Paris is the world center of art!’ People come to Milwaukee and I drive them around and say, ‘Milwaukee’s the center for water technology. Trust me, there’s water technology research going on in these various buildings we’re driving past.’ But I had no way to really prove it. Now, I’ve got a Louvre.  I’ve got a building I can take them to and say, ‘Look at this. There’s no building in the world like this.’ And you can actually see water technology being developed in this building.”

Could this type of effort have happened elsewhere? Perhaps, but Milwaukee’s unique culture has played a part in putting this project into motion and allowing the Water Council to grow the way that it has, said Jones.

“What Milwaukee has, is a lot going for it,” Jones said. “For one thing, it’s a great city. It’s a small city with big city amenities. You get to know people here and work with people. I moved here from Chicago. I had very few business relationships with other businesses in the Chicago area; it was too big and too diverse. I went to my job and went home. Here, you get involved in the community. I know every CEO in town; I can get them on the phone any time. We learn from each other. We share ideas. We support each other. It’s a collaborative atmosphere, and everybody believes in Milwaukee, and we want to be better.”

Meeusen said that while Milwaukee is a unique place, it is not always championed as such.

“I have often said that the biggest problem that I’ve run into with Milwaukee since we’ve launched this effort – and I’m a Milwaukee boy, I’ve lived here my whole life – is that if Milwaukee were located on Lake Superior, we’d rename it Lake Adequate,” he said. “We just don’t believe we can be the world’s greatest anything. And we’re wrong. We can be the world’s greatest. We’ve lived in Chicago’s shadow for a long time as a city. We’ve gone through the terrible rough times of the industrial decline of the 70s and 80s. But I believe this city has real potential in it, and I think this building is going to show the city that, yes, we can be the center of water technology.”

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Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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