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Barrett: Milwaukee Needs to Sell Itself as Business Destination

Recently back from a trade mission to China, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett sat down with WisBusiness.com Editor Brian Clark to assess the city's business climate and business developments.

The interview occurred before the new PabstCity development idea emerged, but Barrett was emphatic that the city is pushing major project development on several fronts and that he'll always be a proponent of regional cooperation.

"Whenever there is a discussion about regional support for amenities in Milwaukee, you can bet the Milwaukee mayor will support that," Barrett said. "The challenge is to get the support of people who don’t live in the city, but work in here and come to the museums, the symphony, Summerfest and other cultural attractions.

"I have been doing everything I can to support this region. When I look around the country, I see the common denominator for areas hat have moved ahead economically is that they are working better together than we have here."

Barrett also says "sending the message that Milwaukee is open for business" is the most important business issue facing him as mayor.

"This is great city to do business in. ... But I think the city has to sell itself. The city is a product that has to be sold."

Clark interviewed Barrett in Milwaukee on Nov. 9.

Brian Clark: Where did you go in China?

Tom Barrett:
We were there from Oct. 14-22. We spent three nights in Beijing, then Shanghai and ended up in Ningbo, a city of between 5 and 7 million that most Americans have not heard of. We have an agreement with Ningbo to have friendly relations and to try to have continued cooperation on a number of different fronts. Ningbo is a lot bigger than Milwaukee's metro area of 1 to 2 million, but we are compatible as sister cities. I was told if you multiply U.S. numbers by five, compared to China, you have the right scale.

Clark: Are there any tangible results to come out of your trip in terms of jobs?

That was not the purpose of the trip. I never harbored any illusions that I was going to fly over there and come back with immediate jobs. I don't think you can make a cold sales call on a country and have them think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread. This was about building relationships.

In that area, I think we had some tangible results. At Shougang, the fourth largest steel company in China, we were able to help facilitate a dinner that included the CEO of the company, my delegation and the president of Rockwell here in Milwaukee. Chinese mayors have a lot more power than here, so I had a lot of cachet. I liked that.

The steel company needs Rockwell's products as it makes plans to build a new plant and relocate outside of Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics. I'm hoping Rockwell will move up the supply ladder because of this meeting.

We also had a lot of conversations about Harley-Davidson with the mayors of Ningbo. Harley Davidson faces a challenge because many of laws pertaining to motorcycles are local and 170 cities limit the size of engines to 150 cc, which takes Harley out of the picture. And in Beijing, no motorcycles are allowed within the third ring of roads in the city. We raised this issue.

I've also written a letter to President Bush, who is traveling to China later this month, to ask him – when he talks about the growing trade imbalance – to discuss Harley. I can't think of a more appropriate all-American product, which in many ways epitomizes the American spirit.

I've asked him to use this as one of his trading pieces to open the doors. Specifically to ask about their use for police departments and even for the Olympic games. To have Harley be a prominent part of the Olympics would allow us to address some of our trade issues, get a good American product into China and open some markets there.

Clark: What surprised you most about China?

A couple of things jumped out at me. One was that there are more people in China who speak English as a second language than there are people who speak English as their first language in this country.

I also asked an official if they were seeing a slowing of the growth of the labor pool, so they could organize to allow rates to improve. He said he didn't think so. In the U.S., we have 147 million people in the labor pool, while there are 170 million people there who are unemployed. So there is a huge pool of labor. This is primarily in the rural areas and they are moving to the cities, so that cheap labor pool will continue.

Clark: Do you worry that China will catch up to us scientifically and take over the high-end work we do here?

They are certainly moving in that direction. I was very impressed by their commitment to education. They want to educate the best and brightest. They are playing for keeps.

Clark: What were they surprised to learn about Milwaukee?

We blew them away, it is safe to say, with our DVD presentation because it was in Mandarin Chinese and had Chinese writing. They were impressed. We also made the point that Milwaukee is a vital part of this country, that our gross domestic product is larger than a lot of their communities' GDP and that we are within a day's drive of 25 percent of the nation's population.

We made that point because many Chinese tend to think of the United States as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. We wanted them to know there is a huge area in the center of the country that is willing to be a partner in technology, manufacturing, distribution and after-sales service. Like I said, we want to ride the dragon and work with them rather than feel its fire.

Clark: What is the status of PabstCity and Park East?

Subsequent to the action taken in July (when the Common Council rejected a development proposal), I haven't stopped for a moment letting people in this community know that I am adamant about the development of the Pabst site. I will not rest until we develop that site and I remain optimistic, despite the slings and arrows aimed at the prior development effort, that people will recognize that we have to invest in our city. If we don't, then shame on us.

We are also moving on Park East. The city plot that we own was put on RFP (request for proposal) in January. To our pleasant surprise, we had six proposals that were almost all solid. We have chosen a developer for that site. The county has now moved several pieces of property, as well. It is a high priority for me. Bear in mind, before I was elected, there wasn't even a development plan for the site. We got that in place within 60 days of my election.

Clark: Do you think the city's murder rate is under control? And how does that affect tourism?

We had a situation in 2004 that I was ecstatic about. For the first time in 16 years, our homicide rate dipped below 100. In the late 1980s, it was over 150. We have seen a gradual decline. Last year, we ended up with only 88 homicides. I was proud of that. But I was cautioned by the police chief and others that as great of news as that was, we could not assure people it would stay that way. And indeed, that was prophetic. We are now at 106 homicides for the year, so we will probably end up back n the area where we were in 2002-2003.

For me, homicides are the hardest part of this job. I get the calls at home and they are like a kick in the belly. We have to fight this on an incredible number of fronts. I work endlessly to send the message throughout the community that I don't care what the dispute is, you don't resort to violence.

We have been very proactive to create opportunities for young people. We had the safe summer initiative, which included things like hiring 200 teenagers in city government, getting kids jobs in the Dells and with a number of private employers.

We also put together a summer activity youth guide because we heard a lot that there is nothing to do. Well, there is a lot to do, if you know where to go.

I've also sent the message that there are communities that have more poverty than Milwaukee that have less violence. Poverty is a common denominator for high homicides, but it doesn't have to be that way. I'm doing everything we can to create jobs in this community.

But if we took the attitude that violence is just a byproduct of poverty, we'd be throwing up our hands in the short run. And while homicide numbers are up, other violent crime numbers are down. So it's not all bad news.

As for tourism, people should know that this is a safe city. Crime is more prevalent in some neighborhoods. But if you come downtown and go to areas that tourists like to visit, it is not a major concern. I don't minimize the danger in some neighborhoods and we focus police presence there.

Clark: What has been the No. 1 business issue you've faced in the first part of your term?

Sending the message that Milwaukee is open for business. This is great city to do business in. We have a great infrastructure, we have a plentiful worker supply and an administration that wants companies to locate here because I want family supporting jobs. It is pretty straight-forward.

I think we are getting that message out now. Health care costs are an issue for employers. Taxes are an issue, which is why we are doing everything we can to control them. But I think the city has to sell itself. The city is a product that has to be sold. I'm excited about doing that for Milwaukee.

Clark: Do you agree with Milwaukee Public Museum President Dan Finley about a regional tax to promote and fund regional attractions?

Whenever there is a discussion about regional support for amenities in Milwaukee, you can bet the Milwaukee mayor will support that. The challenge is to get the support of people who don't live in the city, but work in here and come to the museums, the symphony, Summerfest and other cultural attractions.

I have been doing everything I can to support this region. When I look around the country, I see the common denominator for areas hat have moved ahead economically is that they are working better together than we have here. ...

Clark: Do you think the Bucks will make the playoffs?

Oh yes. Oh yes. I am very excited about the Bucks. It has been years since I've known more players' names on the Bucks or Brewers teams than the Packers. But there is much more optimism for both the Bucks and Brewers than for the Packers.

Clark: If the Bucks make the playoffs, do you think that will help them rehabilitate the Bradley Center?

I anticipate that there will be an announcement very soon about an agreement for the Bradley Center. Again, it raises the question of how much this region wants to have a pro basketball team. It is important to not just this city. I hope we will have a healthy and productive debate. I want the Bucks to stay. But the city can't pay for it by itself.

Clark: Where does the Milwaukee stand on getting citywide Wi-Fi?

A key committee for the Common Council has just approved our recommendation that will allow us to negotiate with Midwest Fiber Network, a locally owned company, to provide access to Wi-Fi throughout the entire city.

The city will not put in any tax dollars in this. In fact, we hope to garner some money from this. It is not a sole provider arrangement. So if there were another company that wanted to invest $20 to $25 million to create a Wi-Fi network, we could have that conversation as well.

Other cities – San Francisco and Philadelphia – are further along in negotiations to create a Wi-Fi city. But our advantage is that we have a more advanced physical infrastructure beneath our streets that may allow us to leapfrog those other cities and get this done sooner.

Clark: Some critics have argued that because taxpayers have already paid for the fiber optic cable underground, here should be price breaks for low-income residents.

That is something we should consider and I am quite supportive of that. The question is how we do that. I associate Wi-Fi with laptops and there aren't a lot of laptops in the central city right now. But there are different ways to skin that cat.

Clark: What kind of oversight would the city have over the system once it is built?

That is all being negotiated now.

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