We've written here before about the report earlier this year from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which urged closer cooperation between the balkanized towns and cities in the Chicago economic area, around the south end of Lake Michigan.
Now, one of those cities, Milwaukee, has taken the lead. But Chicago also is paying attention. Good things might be about to happen.
The OECD report, the first dealing with a U.S. metro region, noted the potential power and considerable assets of the Chicago region, but also said it is under-performing, in jobs and income, largely because its major cities -- Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, Michigan City and the towns in between -- cooperate on almost nothing. It's time, the report said, for this region to work together in such areas as transport (it's the transport hub of the nation), water (it commands huge freshwater assets), and workforce development (it's an old industrial area that needs to retrain for the post-industrial era).
Milwaukee took this seriously, or at least two of its major institutions -- the Marquette University Law School and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel -- did. In July, they sponsored a very meaty program entitled "Milwaukee's Future in the Chicago Megacity," devoted to seeking practical first steps toward more regional cooperation, to make the region the one big urban area it should be.
The program played to an overflow crowd and brought in some heavy hitters -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, ManpowerGroup CEO Jeff Joerres and even a leading Chicago politician, Toni Preckwinkle, the visionary new president of the traditional dysfunctional Cook County Board. State governments too often are hostile about any interstate cooperation, but a key Wisconsin official, Paul Jadin, CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. -- in essence, Wisconsin's commerce secretary -- attended.
Milwaukee has often seen itself as a rival of Chicago, in sports and other areas. But as the program's title indicated, thoughtful Milwaukeeans know that Chicago is the cornerstone of the region's economy and Milwaukee's future hinges on linking to that economy. John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian, said that Milwaukee is overshadowed by Chicago, to the point that it's developed "a stubborn inferiority complex" bordering on resentment to the city 90 miles south.
But everything's changed, Gurda said. If Chicago is no longer the city of the big shoulders, Milwaukee no longer can be independent. Cooperation is vital for survival.
Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites know this, according to a poll presented by a Marquette visiting professor, Charles Franklin. In a state-wide poll, 65 percent saw closer ties to Chicago as an opportunity: 23 percent saw them as a threat. Quicker transport, like a high-speed rail line, was seen as beneficial, with 60 percent saying the benefits outweighed the costs. Franklin cautioned that there still is a hostile, often vocal, opposition to closer relations, but the degree of support for a changed relationship was remarkable in a Midwestern region, where opposition to change so often blocks any progress.
Bill Testa, the director of regional programs at the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, said joining the two economies would create "larger and deeper labor markets," enabling the region to compete in a global economy in which big cities are playing a more important role. Aaron Renn, the host of the widely-read urban affairs blog, The Urbanophile, agreed that any sharing of assets, such as infrastructure, is always a gain.
Joerres, whose Milwaukee-based company operates around the world, agreed that "everything is moving to cities, and cities are getting bigger." Milwaukee could lose some companies to Chicago, but it already is part of the larger Chicago megacity "and we just have to do this."
OK, but what is the "this" that has to be done? If Milwaukee and Chicago need to link their futures, how can they do this?
A lot of ideas were floated, and we'll list them in a moment. But the most dramatic part of the day came at the end, when a questioner asked Preckwinkle, Barrett and Jadin to say in one word what the two cities should do first.
Milwaukee already has set itself up as the freshwater capital of the world with its Water Council and the new Freshwater School at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Chicago's City Hall and other leaders are just beginning to take notice: water companies in the city have formed a trade group called Blue Tech Alliance. The job now is to get these players around the same table, to enable the two cities to leverage their water-based assets to create a global freshwater center that could be an investment magnet in an increasingly arid world.
After the session, I asked Barrett if he wasn't worried that Chicago, which outweighs Milwaukee five-to-one in people and clout, wouldn't try to grab this water leadership for itself, to take what Milwaukee has already done and turn it to Chicago's advantage.
"That's the chance we have to take," Barrett said. He sounded confident that Milwaukee could hold its own, but what he meant was that, if Milwaukee is to keep growing as a water center, it has to do it as a partner with Chicago or not at all.
The meeting brimmed with other ideas for progress. Some were so broad and ambitious as to invite failure: no one doubts that the two cities will really thrive only when they fix their broken K-12 educational systems, but this is such a huge and contentious task, one that has defeated reformers for years, that it seems a step too big right now.
Transport cooperation looms large in two areas. One is the need for simple coordination between state and urban transport systems, to help break the freight logjams that slow so much train traffic through the area. More immediate is the need for a good high-speed commuter rail line between Chicago and Milwaukee, to cut the current Amtrak time from 90 minutes to 45 minutes. State and rail officials have opposed this line in the past, so the job now is to build so much political support for the idea in the two cities that government nay-sayers have to cave in.
(The weakest part of the Marquette program was the panel on transport -- not because the subject isn't important but because the national, state and local rail officials who made up the panel defended the current inadequate system instead of thinking how to improve it.)
"Workforce development" is such an eye-glazing term for worker training that the subject doesn't get the attention it deserves. But everyone at the Marquette program agreed that we've got a crisis on our hands -- manufacturing companies with good jobs that can't find skilled workers to take them, coupled with skilled workers whose jobs have been automated or outsourced. The Chicago region is an old industrial area that is crippled by this worker/skills mismatch. Unlike K-12, this problem can be tackled by business, government and schools -- especially community colleges -- working together. Participants agreed this is something that would benefit both cities.
Mitchell Field, Milwaukee's airport, is already used by so many Chicagoans and residents of the city's northern suburbs that it's becoming Chicago's de facto third airport. There was broad agreement that this status should be recognized and promoted, through joint marketing and, in the longer run, by making sure that any high-speed rail link stops at both O'Hare and Mitchell on its trips between the city centers.
I gave the lunch speech at this conference and suggested, among other things, that it's time for leaders of the two cities to start meeting on a formal basis, to get the habit of cooperation under way. Charles Franklin's poll found that 72 percent of respondents felt the private sector should take the lead, probably because governments by their nature are too concerned with problems at home to spend much time cooperating with other governments. I also suggested that businesses and business groups take the lead, but urged that seats at the table be reserved for governments, educators -- especially community colleges -- local foundations, unions, and others with a stake in a vibrant economy.
Getting businesses involved will be tricky. Like so many such meetings, the Marquette program drew mostly academics and non-profit people, not businessmen. Asked about this, Joerres said it was up to business leaders like himself to twist colleagues' arms, to get them to the table.
The process has begun. The Metropolitan Planning Council, one of Chicago's more useful urban organizations, has asked the mayors of Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary to speak at its annual meeting next week (July 25). The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, which was one of the prime movers of the OECD report, is taking steps to follow up on the report's recommendations. Cooperation on water is beginning to sound like an idea whose time has come.
None of this erases the need for Chicago to extend cooperation eastward, into northern Indiana and western Michigan. But the feeling at the Marquette meeting was that this is Chicago's job: all Milwaukee can do is to reach out to Chicago itself, and hope Chicago responds.
Milwaukee definitely gets it, and wants to get moving. A bigger chore will be to get Chicago's attention: like most regional big apples, it can be terribly parochial when dealing with its neighbors.
So leadership below the public radar screen is vital. Too many Chicagoans, when they think of Milwaukee at all, still scorn its citizens as beer-swilling cheeseheads. Too many Milwaukeeans still see Chicago as a sinkhole of crime and corruption and not much else. But the two cities have too much in common to continue to keep each other at arm's length.