Milwaukee’s Image

Learn more about:

People from around the country tend to think of Milwaukee in terms of beer and brats, if they think of us at all. But once they come here, they don’t want to leave. What should be done to overcome our national perception problem?
When Ray Long agreed to come to Milwaukee for a job interview last December, he knew little about the city.
The little he thought he knew, however, wasn’t flattering.
The lifelong East Coast resident had never been to Milwaukee before and was expecting to find himself in a dingy rustbelt town. But what Long found here surprised him.
“I had never heard anything about Milwaukee other than the beer and the Brewers,” says Long, a printing industry executive who made the trip up from Charlotte, N.C. “My initial thought was that I was going to see something like Detroit. But it is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been in. People here are extremely friendly and accommodating.”
No surprise, then, that Long ended up taking the job as president of Alphagraphics, a downtown print shop. His experience is fairly typical of the transformation many people go through when they relocate to Milwaukee, says Jude Werra, a Brookfield executive recruiter.
“I remember talking to a guy in the search field from Atlanta, and he called Milwaukee ‘a black hole,'” Werra says. “What he meant by that is, it takes all sorts of energy to get people to relocate here, but, once they come, they don’t want to leave.”
Milwaukee has plenty going for it. The cost of living ranks 22% less than San Jose, 11% less than Boston, and 5% less than Chicago. The average commute here is only 22 minutes. The metro area has the fourth lowest crime rate, based on 1995 FBI statistics. Only one other city, Los Angeles, raises more money for the arts. And, for those fed up with the transient nature of Sunbelt cities, Milwaukee is rock-solid in that three-fourths of its adult residents were born here, while 90% have lived here for more than 10 years.
The perception problem
While some of those who have moved here from other parts of the country are well aware of Milwaukee’s high quality of life, the majority are not. This national perception problem makes it difficult at times to recruit executive talent, and can have a detrimental effect on business expansion and relocation decisions, says Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
Almost universally, unless they have lived here or visited, people on both coasts often have little or no idea where Milwaukee is located. Kate Krill, a 34-year-old Milwaukee native, ran into that repeatedly when she lived in Boston.
“The people there kept confusing Milwaukee with Michigan,” says Krill, a technical writer with M&I Data Services who just moved back to the city after several years on the East Coast. “They have no idea that Milwaukee is on a body of water, or how close it is to Chicago.”
Tim Hoeksema, the CEO of Midwest Express Holdings, Inc., has discovered in his travels that the image most people around the country have of Milwaukee is really no image at all. Others concur with that assessment.
“Nationally, I don’t think there is a definitive impression,” adds William Hanbury, president of the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “I don’t think people have high negatives or positives about Milwaukee.”
If people from around the country have a mental image of Milwaukee at all, it was shaped by the LaVerne & Shirley/Happy Days television sitcoms from the early 1970s: That we are a simple folk who are content to live lives centered around beer, brats and bowling, says Milwaukee public relations executive Mike Mervis.
That, suggests Mervis, is reason enough that Milwaukee is overdue for an image overhaul.
“We’ve got to get rid of our loser image,” Mervis contends. “We don’t have a cockiness, or even a polite arrogance. We lack a certain civic pride that we are entitled to. We’ve got a halfway decent offense, but we’ve got no defense. We need to crank it up a notch and take our show on the road.”
Our own worst critics
While there are many views as to what should be done to shore up the city’s image, Mervis says that without a clear, consistent message, Milwaukee will continue to suffer in comparison with other cities such as Cleveland, Baltimore and Indianapolis, all of which have succeeded in reinventing formerly negative images within the last 10 years.
“Milwaukee has to define itself,” says Mervis, who moved here 30 years ago. “The mayor, to some degree, needs to be our head rah-rah person. I think he is capable, but I don’t think he is comfortable with it.”
For his own part, Mayor John Norquist believes Milwaukee’s understated image is a reflection of the city’s central European heritage. Norquist himself is a good representation of the modest, self-effacing nature of his constituents.
“I advocate for Milwaukee, but I don’t want to be like a carnival barker,” Norquist says. “Besides, I would rather be in a position where you are better than your image, than the reverse of that, where the reality does not match the hype.”
While there are plenty of efforts dedicated to elevating Milwaukee’s national image, Mervis and others such as CVB’s Hanbury contend that Milwaukeeans tend to be some of their own worst critics.
“I moved here four years ago, and I never had a bad impression of Milwaukee, but I found out that some local residents do,” Hanbury says.
Owen May is a former WTMJ-TV reporter who moved here from the East Coast in 1988. May is incensed by the “poor me” attitude that many Milwaukeeans seem to have about themselves in comparison to the rest of the country.
“I am so tired of hearing people here in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee media especially, in subtle ways putting down their own city, suggesting the rest of the world thinks we’re a bunch of cheeseheads,” says May, the general manager of Metro Video Services in Wauwatosa. “And, it’s not true! I think people here should celebrate and be genuinely proud of what they’ve got here.”
Adds Mervis: “I wish there was a community psychiatrist who could put us on the couch. We tend to have this built-in inferiority complex. If you are going to change your image, everybody, and I mean everybody, has to feel good about our city.”
According to CVB public relations director Maggie Jacobus, a critical element of the turnaround in Cleveland, Baltimore and Indianapolis was getting local residents to buy into the idea that their city was special.
“We can sell this city until we are blue in the face, but if we don’t believe it ourselves, there’s a disconnect,” Jacobus says.
Because research indicates that more than half of the five million leisure travelers who visit Milwaukee annually stay with family and friends, “That means we need to get to the locals and make sure that they are showing them the city and conveying this sense of civic pride,” Jacobus says. “It becomes a matter of exciting the resident as to what is going on here to get them to be an active participant.”
And there is plenty going on to get the locals excited, civic leaders say.
There’s the $172 million Midwest Express Convention Center opening this summer, the debut of Miller Park in the year 2000, and the dramatic $50 million addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum at the lakefront designed by internationally recognized architect Santiago Calatrava. Add to that the Department of City Development’s ongoing efforts to foster development of an entertainment district along the Milwaukee River downtown, a host of new and renovated downtown hotels, and unprecedented development of downtown buildings and factory and warehouse lofts into residential units, and it’s clear that Milwaukee has reason to tout itself.
“Now we have a story to tell,” says Hoeksema, who is playing a lead role in a newly formed civic organization called Spirit of Milwaukee, a non-profit dedicated to improving the city’s image as a business and tourism destination. “We’ve got a great story, but now we’ve got to tell it.”
A Great Place
on a Great Lake
Bob Kraft is a Detroit native who moved here to form RWK Enterprises, which includes Alphagraphics and Electronic Printing Systems, a specialty printing operation focusing on the automotive industry. Because he is constantly bringing automotive executives here from around the world, it is important that the city convey a good image.
Kraft says downtown Milwaukee plays to rave reviews from his international clientele.
“People are very surprised when they to come Milwaukee for the first time,” Kraft says. “They are surprised at the cleanliness, the proximity to the lake and the old-world architecture. We have clients from L.A. living downtown at the MAC, and they love it here. They say the people here are friendly, there is no traffic, and the city has a European feel with good restaurants.
“We’ve got another fellow here from London who has never been to the Midwest before, and he can’t get over it,” Kraft continues. “We have had folks here from Germany, Japan – all over the world, and they always end up wanting to come back. And that’s good for me because it means they are going to spend money.”
Kraft lived in Lake County, Illinois, for nine years before moving here, and had a daily 90-minute commute to his former job near O’Hare International Airport. He says he would never go back.
“We are like a smaller version of Chicago, except you can get around,” Kraft says. “I don’t think the people who live here really realize what a great place this is. I have traveled all over the world, and I’ve seen a lot of great places, but I haven’t seen a city I’d rather live in.”
Attracting key employees is the defining factor for success in business today, Hanbury maintains. And quality of life is a trump card Milwaukee area employers can play when they are playing the executive recruiting game.
“When it gets right down to it, what keeps people here is the quality of life and the quality of the community,” says John Howman, CEO of Allied Computer Group in Milwaukee. “A lot of the things that we tend to take for granted, other communities don’t have. We tend to have more [executive recruiting] success when we put emphasis on those areas.”
Ron Roth, a New York-based executive recruiter who has placed numerous executives with G.E. Medical Systems in Waukesha over the last 12 years, says it is harder to sell prospective recruits on Milwaukee than it is some of the more high-profile areas of the country.
“But, once they bring their families there, people like the values and the lifestyle,” Roth says.
Apart from lifestyle considerations, Milwaukee is a substantive kind of place with down-to-earth people, adds Dick Tilmar, CEO of the T.E. Brennan Co., a downtown Milwaukee insurance risk consultant and employee benefits company.
Tilmar moved to Los Angeles from Milwaukee in 1985 to climb the corporate ladder in the insurance business. After switching jobs twice due to downsizing, he decided in 1993 he had had enough of Southern California.
“When my wife asked me after the second downsizing what I wanted to do, I said ‘I want to go home’,” the 54-year-old Tilmar recalls.
“There is an expression about people in Southern California: They either wear it, live in it or drive it,” Tilmar says. “It’s the big-house-with-no-furniture concept. I saw a lot of people out there who only cared about how they looked, or who drove a big expensive car so they could get two front seats – stuff like that.”
Tilmar makes it clear that he didn’t leave California for financial reasons. The truth is, he made substantially more money there. The tradeoff, he says, is lifestyle, familiarity and ease of getting around.
“The depth of character and the basic principles are far more ingrained in the people here in the Midwest,” Tilmar adds. “Out there , you were someone’s friend as long as you could buy their services or contribute to their favorite charity. The attitude was one of, ‘I’ll take anything I can get as long as I am moving forward.’ The difference here is, I think people actually care about people beyond what they can do for them.”
Ease of living is something many Milwaukeeans take for granted. But for those who have lived in another major city, they can appreciate the difference. Until she moved back here recently, Kate Krill essentially had no closets in her Boston apartment. So she stored her coats in U-Haul moving boxes. That’s the sort of inconvenience Bostonians have learned to live with, Krill says.
“I found that intolerable, but people there aren’t fazed by that sort of thing,” Krill says. “You have so many hassles in a city like Boston; just the day-to-day things like going shopping are stressful. By contrast, you can have a sane, manageable life in Milwaukee. You don’t need to earn $70,000 a year before you attain a comfort of life.”
Future looks bright
From where Bill Hanbury sits, the future of Milwaukee looks bright. Even though his job is to project a positive image of the city to conventioners and tourists, the numbers would seem to support his contention.
Back in 1994, the CVB’s consultants said that by 1997, CVB officials should have been able to book seven new national pieces of convention business. By the end of last year, the CVB booked 34 new national conventions that require more than two hotels to house all the guests, Hanbury says.
Another key indicator shows that Milwaukee did 269,000 room nights per year last year, up from 210,000 in 1994.
“For so long, when major national conventions decided that they wanted to go to the Midwest, Milwaukee was seldom on the radar screen,” Hanbury says. “Now, with the new convention center and new hotel developments going on downtown, that has changed. Now we are on the short list.
“There is a whole new energy and sense of rebirth going on in downtown Milwaukee,” Hanbury says. “That is why I get incensed when I hear the talk-radio guys slam what is going on here.
“We know what the future looks like at the CVB, and it is very, very positive,” Hanbury adds. “We look out to the years 2001 and 2002, and we are in an almost sold-out position. We will have a constant flow of convention and event delegates. It creates a whole new economic tool for the community that previously did not exist.”
You gotta believe
Allied Computer’s Howman says new marketing efforts should focus on the “new” Milwaukee – which is one of a manufacturing city in transition to a more technology-based economy – and less on the old Milwaukee.
“Milwaukee is no Chicago, but we have some very high-tech companies here, and some big-time companies in the area,” Howman says. “As business people and government leaders, we have to put more emphasis on the newness of what is going on here rather than what we have been known for historically.”
But old, ingrained attitudes can be hard to break. The beer-and-brats image can be difficult to overcome when one of the only images people from around the country have of Wisconsin is that of the frozen tundra, Werra says. That perception likely stems from nationally televised images of Packer fans wearing cheese wedges on their head, eating sausages and drinking beer in chilly stadium parking lots.
All the same, Todd Robert Murphy believes Milwaukee is the best-kept secret in the Midwest. If anything, the outspoken advertising/marketing executive thinks too many here are predisposed to negativism.
“I don’t think we are doing enough,” Murphy says. “I think there is much more that needs to be done. But before we tell people around the country how great we are, we need to convince our own people how fortunate they are to live here.”

Sign up for the BizTimes email newsletter

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

What's New


Sponsored Content

Get the Latest Updates on the RNC in Milwaukee

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep up with the issues, companies and people that matter most to business in the Milwaukee metro area.

By subscribing you agree to our privacy policy.

No, thank you.
BizTimes Milwaukee