Earlier this spring, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued what it called a "territorial review" on the Chicago economic region, stretching from Milwaukee through northwest Indiana. Basically, the OECD said this region was much less than the sum of its parts, and needed some real cooperation, across state lines, to achieve a vibrant economy in the age of globalization.
At the time, I wrote about this report and expressed the hope that somebody in the region would jump on these ideas and try to turn them into reality. It looks now like this may be happening.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has made closer cooperation between Milwaukee and Chicago one of its main topics this year. Together with the Law School at Marquette University, it is sponsoring a conference July 17 at Marquette entitled "Milwaukee's Future in the Chicago Megacity." I'm taking part in this conference and hope it will be the first step toward real collaboration between the two lakeside cities that share so much -- history, economy, geography, demographics -- but spend so little time talking with each other.
If Chicago and Milwaukee aren't exactly the Twin Cities, they're the next best thing. Most big Midwestern cities are 200 miles apart or more -- too far apart for easy day-by-day cooperation: probably nothing short of a true high-speed rail network will overcome this tyranny of distance.
But Milwaukee and Chicago and the suburbs between them are close to being a megacity, a conurbation of 12 million people, spread along the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, only 90 miles and 90 minutes apart, even on the toonerville Amtrak rail link between them. A decent semi-high-speed commuter rail line would cut this to 45 minutes, which is about what most Chicagoans already spend getting to work each day.
How to establish this link? How to get Chicagoans working in Milwaukee and vice versa? How to get the two cities to save money with shared services? How to hook Chicago into Milwaukee's growing water industries and Milwaukee into Chicago's business services? Indeed, how to get the two cities to move beyond their traditional rivalry in sports and begin talking seriously about their common future?
This is what that conference will be about. It is Milwaukee-centered, which is unsurprising considering the participants: the agenda is how Milwaukee can gain through greater links with Chicago: it would be nice to see a reciprocal Chicago-centered conference, with Chicagoans, who habitually ignore anybody outside the city limits, thinking how they can gain through ties with Milwaukee.
A major problem, noted by everyone, is that the two cities lie in two states with a long history of non-cooperation, even hostility. It would seem that greater Milwaukee-Chicago cooperation would lie in projects outside the authority of the states, so Madison and Springfield couldn't stick their oar in.
But as you'll see from the agenda, one of the speakers is a Wisconsin state official, Paul Jadin, who is CEO and secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which recently replaced the state's Department of Commerce. Jadin also took part in the Chicago program that unveiled the OECD report. He's a solid citizen and if he's a sign of new thinking in Madison, perhaps state capitals won't be that much of a problem after all.
All over the Midwest, cities are talking about striking closer ties with neighbors, sometimes in other states: Cleveland and Pittsburgh, for instance, or the Quad Cities, or Omaha and Council Bluffs, or Indianapolis and Louisville. If the folks in Milwaukee are on to something, they could be blazing a trail for other cities to follow.
At any rate, we'll be taking notes at that Milwaukee conference next month and will keep you posted.