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WisBusiness event: Milwaukee's Economy - Next Steps for Growth
2/7/2012

While not discounting the value of luring new companies to Wisconsin with public incentives, a team of business professionals says metro Milwaukee needs to invest in existing businesses, as well as fixing crumbling roads and poor academic outcomes in order to improve the employment picture.

"It's important if we want to have net growth, we can't just have new businesses and new employees -- we have to maintain what we have," said Dave Rotter, president and chief executive officer of National Ace Hardware, which runs two stores in the city of Milwaukee. Tax credits and other benefits for start-ups or businesses that move here shouldn't be at the expense of existing businesses because "existing businesses have a better chance of being around five years from now."

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Rotter discussed the state of the Milwaukee-area economy recently at Milwaukee's Discovery World. Other panelists at the forum included: Rose Oswald Poels, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Bankers Association; Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a major sponsor of the Milwaukee 7 and other regional economic development initiatives; and William Holahan, professor, UW-Milwaukee economics department.

Holahan said businesses might come to Wisconsin if offered incentives, but won't stay unless infrastructure, such as roads and bridges are improved.

"The time to spend that money is during a recession, when you're already running a deficit. If you borrow the money to fix up that infrastructure during a recession, some very beneficial things happen," he said. "You employ otherwise unemployed workers and capital equipment and the companies that own them and would like to participate in the repairs. When the recession is over, it's ready to go."

Poels, whose trade association represents 271 financial institutions statewide, said that "over-regulation and over-zealousness is having a negative effect on the economy." "The regulators want to make sure that a bank's loan portfolio is properly diversified, so that if one sector of the economy breaks down, the bank doesn't fall down with that sector," said Poels. She acknowledged "if you haven't cash-flowed in the last two years, it will be difficult for you to get traditional financing 100 percent."

Taylor said economic development takes a long-term commitment, pointing to Akron, Ohio, where leaders worked to establish a polymer industry to replace jobs lost when tire-makers went overseas. But she said the Milwaukee area was well positioned for growth.

"When we're talking about jobs versus growth, we have to be concerned about where our jobs are at, in the community as well as throughout the region, but also, where's our growth strategy, because that's where ultimately, jobs come from," said Taylor. "Milwaukee's always had this great industrial heritage. We were just recognized in the Brookings (Institution) report as one of the top growth areas in the country, in the world, actually, because of having a strong industrial base here. And actually, we've had 2.4 percent job growth since 2011, which doesn't sound great, but in this economy, this is not bad."

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