President Barack Obama’s plans for massive infrastructure spending to stimulate the U.S. economy will provide an opportunity for southeastern Wisconsin to boost its economy and improve its quality of life, according to Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.
“If we leverage it right, this is a big opportunity that we haven’t had for years,” Taylor said.
Obama’s stimulus package could boost southeastern Wisconsin’s efforts to become a water industry hub, Taylor said. Funding to help establish at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a new School of Freshwater Sciences would help that effort significantly, she said.
Federal stimulus funds could also assist rail and highway projects that have been planned or proposed in the region, and could provide needed maintenance for area highways, she said.
The stimulus funds also could be used for parks and building maintenance that has been deferred, Taylor said.
Unlike most local public officials, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has said he does not want federal stimulus money that will require local matching funds or local operating funds.
“He’s staying true to his beliefs,” Taylor said. “(But) we have some real needs in Milwaukee County. A lot of (government) buildings in Milwaukee County have had no maintenance for years. A lot of those buildings were built during the Depression with public funding.”
Many business owners who typically oppose Democrats are supporting the Obama administration and its stimulus plan for now because the nation is facing an economic crisis, Taylor said.
“People are feeling that this is such an unusual time, there have to be measures taken,” Taylor said.
One of the most important things that Obama needs to do is restore confidence for the American people, Taylor said. If he can convince Americans that the country is moving in the right direction and that the economy is moving toward recovery, then consumer confidence will improve, she said.
“Changing the public’s psyche, that’s a big part of it,” she said.
For the short term 2009, Taylor is not optimistic.
“I think it’s going to be a really, really tough time for the average citizen, for the first time in our lives,” she said.
The Milwaukee area, which typically avoids the extreme economic booms and busts, is in better shape than many other areas of the country, Taylor said. Large, long-standing bell-wether firms such as Harley-Davidson Inc. and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. provide a backbone that stabilizes southeastern Wisconsin during a recession, Taylor said.
“These companies aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “And they bring a network of entrepreneurs and are an innovative source of talent that we sometimes underestimate.”
Still, the Milwaukee area is not recession-proof, and some firms are doing better than others, depending on their industry, Taylor said.
Badger Meter Inc., Bucyrus International Inc. and Joy Global Inc. are faring well, but their stock shares have taken major hits. Other firms such as Marcus Corp., which rely on the consumer spending, are more directly impacted by the economic downturn.
However, Taylor said she is especially concerned about suppliers and smaller firms that lack the resources to cushion themselves during the recession.
“They have to deal with the downturn of orders coming in, or if they have orders coming in, they have to deal with problems obtaining lines of credit,” she said.
The credit crunch has crippled the U.S. economy, but fortunately most of the banks serving southeastern Wisconsin are in decent shape, Taylor said.
“We have pretty good banks here,” she said. “U.S. Bank, M&I got stimulus money and are putting it back on the street, Chase is a strong institution.”
Local firms are cutting unnecessary costs, holding off on expansions and trying to avoid layoffs of critical personnel, Taylor said.
“I hear a lot of CEOs say they are sticking to their knitting with their long-term growth plans, but they also have to respond day-to-day with what is going on in the economy,” she said.