Joel Brennan recently took over as president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, succeeding Julia Taylor who retired in late 2021. Brennan served the past three years as secretary of the Department of Administration under Gov. Tony Evers. Before that, he was the CEO of Discovery World in Milwaukee for 11 years. He now leads an organization of nearly 200 private-sector leaders, whose mission is to improve the civic life and economy of southeastern Wisconsin. BizTimes Milwaukee reporter Maredithe Meyer caught up with Brennan to talk about his latest career move and GMC’s top priorities.
How have you adjusted to your new role?
“My role for the last three years gave me insight into statewide issues, but I also still lived in the Milwaukee community; my wife and I have two kids in high school here. So, I feel like I still had my finger on the pulse of what’s going on locally. But by the same token, there are things happening here on the ground that I’ve been trying to get a good sense of from the people who are engaging in them. … If I have currency in this community, it’s around relationships and the ones I’ve cultivated over the past 25 years since I finished college. So, it’s really trying to make sure I use those to the benefit of hitting the ground running here.”
What issues are top of mind for GMC members these days?
“Education, both early childhood and K-12 education, and higher ed. It’s an issue that the community and membership of the GMC puts a real priority on. Hand-in-hand with that is economic opportunity for all and workforce development. There are few employers that aren’t challenged right now to find the level of workforce that they want.
“There are two other issues that are wound into both of those. One is around racial equity. There’s been a heightened level of conversation in this community in recent years, but it’s an issue that we’ve wrestled with for the past 35 or 40 years. … Then, finally, public safety and crime. I’ve heard not only from the public sector, but also from community leaders, the business community and our membership that it’s an issue of prominence and, in some ways, it’s gotten even more prominent because people feel that there’s an unease in the city around reckless driving and automobile thefts.”
GMC has focused on the vaccine push over the past year. Now that COVID-19 has abated, what’s next at this stage of the pandemic?
“What we do post-COVID-19 has to be about not only recovery to where we were in March of 2020, but how we’re going to move forward even further and faster than before.
“One opportunity is the additional (American Rescue Plan Act) grants the state is making with federal dollars. Those dollars coming into this community provide us with additional ways for members to leverage their efforts and for southeastern Wisconsin to continue down the path that we want to – whether it’s around equitable recovery, small business recovery, workforce development.”
What’s your take on Republican lawmakers’ proposal to overhaul Milwaukee Public Schools?
“I think the best questions that have been asked about this have been, ‘What next? What’s the ultimate outcome here?’ My children, who are now in high school, graduated from one of the specialty schools within MPS that drew from everywhere in the community. Those specialty schools are standouts … amongst the other challenges that MPS has. If you break up MPS into four districts, those high-performing schools may either go away or become much more challenged in attracting students. And that’s one thing people need to understand about what comes next in that case.”