One of the most significant examples of economic decline in Milwaukee’s central city is the story of A.O. Smith.
Founded in 1874 as a baby carriage and bicycle parts manufacturer, A.O. Smith grew into a Fortune 500 company with a massive auto frame manufacturing complex along Capitol Drive on Milwaukee’s northwest side.
A.O. Smith was also a defense contractor and at its peak had 15,000 employees at the Capitol Drive complex. The company still had 6,000 employees there in the early 1980s.
In 1997, A.O. Smith sold its automotive business to Tower Automotive Inc. At that time the Capitol Drive complex still had 2,800 employees.
But in 2006 Tower Automotive shut down its Milwaukee operation. At a place where thousands of people once worked, there were none.
The former A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive site was acquired by the city of Milwaukee, which spent years working to transform it into a business park, which officials named Century City.
It has not been easy to attract businesses to Century City Business Park. Companies are unfortunately reluctant to establish operations in low income areas with higher levels of crime.
Efforts to attract businesses to Century City finally gained some momentum recently, with the return of Talgo and the addition of Good City Brewing. Talgo plans to add 63 jobs, bringing its employment at Century City to 90. Good City Brewing moved its headquarters office and warehousing, with a total of about 10 jobs, to Century City.
That’s great news for Milwaukee, but Century City is still a long way away from providing the thousands of family-supporting jobs that the site once did in its A.O. Smith heyday.
When Franklin-based Strauss Brands announced plans to move its headquarters and meat processing facility to Century City, starting with 250 jobs, it seemed like Century City had finally gained significant momentum in attracting employers. City officials enthusiastically backed the plans.
But all of that changed when activists raised concerns about the establishment of a “slaughterhouse” in Century City, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Ald. Khalif Rainey, who represents the area, suddenly did a 180, flip-flopping from Strauss Brands supporter to opponent in less than a week.
Quickly the company caved too, and dropped its plans for Century City.
Concerns from neighbors should absolutely be taken seriously, but it seems like nobody took the time to see if they could be addressed.
A huge opportunity to bring jobs to an area that desperately needs them has been lost and a terrible message has been sent to the business community.
It will take bold leadership to revitalize the central city. That was sorely lacking with the Strauss Brands plans.