Regional cooperation is hard

Should Milwaukee remove the chip off its shoulder and finally embrace its place as a suburb of Chicago?

I remember the first time I heard that suggestion. It was at the 2005 BizTimes Commercial Real Estate & Development Conference, where Michael Mullen, founder of Chicago-based CenterPoint Properties, was one of the keynote speakers. Mullen told the Milwaukee audience that our city should stop resisting and instead capitalize on its proximity to Chicago.

As I looked around the room, I could see jaws dropping.

However, Mullen cited several logistical advantages Milwaukee had over its larger neighbor to the south, including lower labor costs, lower taxes, a better-trained workforce and less traffic congestion.

Eight years later, the issue came full circle again as Mullen was moderating a panel discussion on “Transportation and Logistics in the Tri-state Region” in Chicago.

Mullen asked Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn about the regional potential.

“We’d be very happy to make Milwaukee a suburb of Chicago,” Quinn said at the discussion, which held as part of the Summit on Regional Competitiveness at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago on Sept. 27. “I think that would be the way to go.”

Annual ridership on Amtrak’s Hiawatha route between Milwaukee and Chicago grew from 397,500 in 2002 to 832,500 in 2012 (a 109-percent increase), and Quinn said the route is the busiest in the nation outside of the East Coast.

One study being done by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Illinois DOT, the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak is examining plans to increase service on the Hiawatha from seven daily roundtrips to 10 daily roundtrips.

At the conference, which was co-presented by the Alliance for Regional Development, Quinn encouraged Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to invest in the Badger State’s share of the costs to upgrade the Hiawatha line and expand the fleet of trains connecting Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport to Union Station in downtown Chicago. Doing so, Quinn said, would help Mitchell Field become “Chicago’s third airport.”

Quinn, a Democrat, began the discussion by chiding Walker, a Republican, for rejecting $810 million in federal funding in 2010 for high-speed rail that would have connected Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison, with ultimate plans to connect to the Twin Cities.

Meanwhile, high-speed rail lines are being built to connect Chicago to St. Louis, Mo., Iowa City, Iowa (through the Quad-Cities), and Detroit, Mich., as those states accepted the federal stimulus funds to build those routes.

Ironically, the stage Quinn was speaking on was occupied only minutes earlier by Walker, who was featured along with Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson in a panel discussion on “Matching Skills to Jobs in the Tri-state Region.”

Walker has publicly stated that one of his priorities is to lure northern Illinois companies to cross the border to the north, and is succeeding in doing just that.

In subsequent panel discussions at the regional conference, Wisconsin was represented by Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Water Council; David Garman, founding dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences; and Paul Jones, executive chairman of Milwaukee-based A.O. Smith Corp. and Wisconsin chairman of the Alliance for Regional Development.

Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence capped the conference by suggesting that the region be branded as “The Heartland.”

The new calls for regional cooperation are encouraging. However, let’s all take a time out from the whole Kumbaya thing on Nov. 4. That’s when the Green Bay Packers will host the Chicago Bears.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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