Aerotropolis Milwaukee

Embracing A Changing World

Aug 06, 2013

There is a saying that goes “When you are through changing, you are through.”  This lesson can be applied to our personal lives, though it bears a particular significance when considering the effect that the global economy has had on the Midwest.  Over the past 50 years, the manufacturing jobs that supported Midwestern society and defined our culture have either disappeared or moved overseas.  In part, these jobs have been replaced by positions requiring advanced scientific and mathematical skill sets, and superior technological ability.  What’s more, these skill sets need to be constantly updated and adapted to the rapid changes occurring in the fields of communication, engineering, and scientific research.  The ability of Midwestern workers to change themselves in order to fill these positions is one of the great challenges of our time.

Cities, like the people and culture that support them, have a similar challenge in adapting to the global economy.  For centuries, American communities have “gone it alone” with separate high schools, city councils, sports teams, libraries, transit systems, police departments, and so on.  This fierce local independence may have worked in the Midwest of 50 years ago, but like the modern Midwestern job seeker, cities must embrace change and think broader than their boundaries to meet the global challenges of competition for talent, investment, and development.

The City of Chicago has recently embraced some big changes with the way it manages its transportation assets.  In late July, it was announced that the City would lease the Port of Chicago, their marine shipping and intermodal facility, to the privately held Broe Group in a 62 year agreement.  This represents a significant changing attitude about transportation by Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other Port decision makers.  As with any big change, this idea will have its detractors that will resist “privatization” and giving up control of a public asset.  Before jumping to conclusions, it should be noted that the City of Chicago hasn’t invested in the Port since 1981 and that the Broe Group will invest $500 million over the next 10 years in the facility.  Such a significant investment in the Port of Chicago can hurt the competitiveness of the Port of Milwaukee and greatly impact shipments on Lake Michigan.

In addition to the marine port, Governor Quinn of Illinois set into motion the creation of a new airport in Will County, IL. This would require a major financial investment and re-shuffling of the aviation market in the broader region.  Perhaps most significantly, Quinn authorized the Illinois Department of Transportation to enter into a public-private partnership to develop, finance, construct, manage, operate and maintain the airport.

Cities and their leaders have a choice – to change or to be changed.  Recently, we have seen major cities like Detroit and Stockton, CA file for bankruptcy to avoid their unmanageable debt.  Milwaukee has an opportunity to change for the better, not merely when we have to in order to survive.  Let’s work with Chicago across City, County, and State lines to coordinate our transportation assets and no longer “go it alone” as two separate regions.  Let’s also consider new models for managing transportation assets because changing our attitudes to public-private cooperation may be the key to improving our economic future.