Valley forged

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

The City of Milwaukee has brownfields. Many brownfields. The city’s Web site lists 200 brownfield properties that are either tax-delinquent or are considered mothball sites that are essentially unused.

Years ago, Milwaukee boomed on the backs of prospering manufacturers. However, many of those sites have been abandoned as those manufactures went out of business, moved to modern facilities elsewhere or moved overseas to take advantage of lower labor costs.

When those manufacturers departed, they left the brownfields behind.

City officials are working to clean up those brownfields and stimulate redevelopment projects.

During the last five years, the city has received about $8 million in brownfield cleanup grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than any other city in the nation, according to city officials.

The city’s largest brownfield area, the Menomonee River Valley, is showing impressive signs of renewal. At one time, about 50,000 people worked in the valley each day. As America’s Rust Belt decayed in the 1980s, the valley became an abandoned, polluted industrial wasteland.

“It was probably the biggest eyesore in the metro area and the state’s largest environmental challenge,” said Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, commissioner of the Department of City Development.

Many skeptics believed the city’s plan to turn the ugly valley into a “green” light industrial area was unrealistic. Still, the city made substantial infrastructure investments in the valley, and now several projects are planned as new businesses are moving in.

City officials took several steps to clean up the valley and attract development. For years, access to the valley was poor, making it unattractive for new development. So, the city replaced the old Sixth Street Viaduct with the new, sleek, modern Sixth Street Bridge that allows easy access to the east end of the valley. The new $50 million bridge was completed in 2003 and was paid for with federal, state and local funds.

The city also rebuilt and extended Canal Street from North 25th Street to Miller Park improving access to the west end of the valley. The project cost $52 million in state and city funds, far more than originally expected.

To eliminate a huge amount of blight and create space for manufacturers to move into the valley, the city condemned and then purchased a 140-acre site, once the Milwaukee Road rail yard, located just east of Miller Park, from Chicago-based CMC Heartland Partners. The city spent $20 million to clean up the site and turn it into a light industrial park, called the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center. The project includes a large amount of green space, which will provide stormwater management for the light industrial park. The green space will take the place of detention ponds, commonly used with suburban industrial buildings, which will allow the industrial buildings in the light industrial park to be built close to each other. The project also included an extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail.

For many, the new site of a large amount of green space in the Menomonee Valley is surprising and surreal.

“Some people think we created a park,” Marcoux said. “Well, it’s a business and industrial park.”

Although the valley was in rough shape for years, city officials believed its proximity to the workforce and its location near Interstate 94 in the center of the metro area would make it an attractive place for manufacturers once again.

That belief is finally paying off, as some manufacturers and others are moving into the valley.

•    Earlier this year, Palermo Villa Inc. opened a new 135,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center. About 270 people work at the facility. The company moved its operations there from Milwaukee’s south side and from Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

•    Caleffi North America plans to build a 35,000-square-foot plant in the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center. The company will move its operations there from Franklin.

•    Badger Railing Inc. plans to move its operations from 1611 W. Canal St. to an 18,400-square-foot building it will build in the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center. The company plans to add 14 jobs to its current workforce of 27.

•    Potawatomi Bingo Casino, 1721 W. Canal St., is building a 500,000-square-foot, $240 million expansion that will add more gaming space, additional restaurants and a six-story parking structure. The expansion will create 1,000 jobs, bringing the casino’s total payroll to about 3,000 full and part-time jobs.

•    Harley-Davidson Inc. is building a $95 million museum complex on a 20-acre site at South 6th and Canal streets. The company expects the museum to attract 350,000 visitors annually, and create 70 full-time jobs. The 130,000-square-foot complex will include the museum, a restaurant, gift shop and space for company archives. Later, Harley plans a second phase for the site, which would add about 100,000 square feet of office space.

•    Ziegler-Bence plans to build a 144,000-square-foot industrial building on the former Milwaukee Stockyards property in the valley at 1221 W. Canal St. Proven Direct will occupy about 80,000 square feet of space in the building and bring more than 100 jobs to the facility. The direct mail marketing firm will move to the building from Menomonee Falls.

•    Falk Corp. plans to add 90 jobs to its Menomonee Valley factory at 3001 W. Canal St.

•    In 2003, The Sigma Group moved from Oak Creek to a new 26,000-square-foot building on a three-acre former brownfield at 1300 W. Canal St., along the Menomonee River.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” Marcoux said. “People are just incredibly attracted to the valley because of the assets there.”

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