Starting the Conversation: Leaders Pledge Milwaukee-Chicago Economic Cooperation

A majority of people in Wisconsin support the idea of more economic cooperation between Milwaukee and Chicago. A roster of major political and corporate leaders want to see more economic cooperation between Milwaukee and Chicago. A major international organization is urging more cooperation.

But will it happen?

That was the question hanging over a provocative and timely conference Tuesday in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall. “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity” was sponsored by Marquette University Law School’s Lubar Fund for Public Policy Research and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The opening speaker of the conference, Milwaukee historian John Gurda, set the tone by urging people to take a view of the relationship, past and future, between Chicago and Milwaukee, as if they were looking from 30,000 feet, where the stateline makes no mark and where the nearly-continuous development that runs from Milwaukee through Chicago and on into northwestern Indiana looks like one continuous megalopolis.

“The time has come look beyond borders,” Gurda said. It is high time for the two cities to act like siblings and not rivals and present a united regional front aimed at strong economies and better lives for people throughout the region.

In general, speakers followed that 30,000-foot approach and were in general agreement with Gurda, although thorny issues – Illinois and Wisconsin “poaching” on jobs from the other state, the merits of high-speed rail – surfaced.

When an audience member hit on one of those subjects — Illinois’ objections to closing off waterways in Chicago in hopes of preventing Asian carp from reaching Lake Michigan, Kelly O’Brien, senior vice president for economic development of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, responded that it was best not to take on the most contentious subjects at the start of regional cooperation efforts, but to look to matters where agreement is easier to reach.

Discussion at the conference focused on three such possibilities: The development of water-related industries, in line with the efforts of the Milwaukee Water Council; building up use of Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport as a third airport for Chicago, and the need for better and more-coordinated education efforts to develop workforces to meet the needs of employers. Rail issues were mentioned often, but it was clear at points that issues such as high-speed rail were going to continue to be controversial.

Charles Franklin, visiting professor of public policy and law and director of the Marquette Law School Poll, presented new results from the poll that showed large majorities of people across Wisconsin saying that it was important to the state for the Milwaukee area to do well economically. The poll also showed that more people in Wisconsin agreed that Wisconsin and Illinois should cooperate rather than trying to gain what they can even at the expense of the other. For more on the poll results, click here.

One of the underlying themes of the conference was a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an influential international group, which looked specifically at the Chicago region, pointing to strengths but criticizing the failure to take advantage of them because of factors such as the lack of a regional approach to transportation.

From Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on through more than a dozen other speakers, there were calls and pledges to join together for the betterment of both the Chicago and Milwaukee areas.

Preckwinkle said, “I believe in the importance of regional cooperation and regional economic development.”

Barrett said, “We are on America’s fresh coast,” and both cities would benefit from promoting that image and the advantages that both share. He said there was a great need to bring more jobs to areas such as Milwaukee’s central city, and a big step toward doing that was to make the Midwest “hot,” a place that attracted more entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and young professionals than has been the case to date.

Paul Jadin, CEO and secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., said both areas needed to improve workforce development and education, including making it clearer to more parents that it can be a good thing if their children don’t go to four-year colleges but take on skilled jobs that employers are having trouble filling.

Tensions were close at hand. When Jadin started to answer an audience member’s question about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to bring Illinois companies to Wisconsin, Preckwinkle interjected that what Walker did was “short sighted and mean spirited.”

But the calls and pledges were aimed at constructive engagement and more leadership on regional cooperation from both public and private sectors.

Richard Longworth, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of the book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, said, “We’ve just got to start talking to each other” if Chicago and Milwaukee are to thrive. “Once we could afford the balkanization” of treating each city as separate and competing places, “but no more,” he said.

When it comes to dealing with regional needs, Longworth said Milwaukee and Chicago are getting beyond denial, “which is pretty much the Midwest way of dealing with things.” If possibilities are handled well, “the future belongs to both of us.” 

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s O’Brien said, “We’re in a new day. . . . There is a true recognition that the city (Chicago) will be stronger as the region benefits.”

William Testa, vice president and director of regional programs for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said it was urgent for Chicago to support regional cooperation because it offered important ways of building up the city’s economy after a terrible decade. The same would apply to Milwaukee.

Aaron Renn, publisher of, a leading urban affairs blog, said “the process is occurring” of the Chicago and Milwaukee areas growing into one larger urban area. Either leaders in both the private and public sectors can try to shape the process for the better or they can let it shape their situations, Renn said.

Jeff Joerres, chairman, CEO, and president of ManpowerGroup, based in Milwaukee, said the OECD did the region a great favor with its recent report, which he took as a wake-up call. Now we need to figure out how to get out of bed, he said, and how to start making regional cooperation and improvement a reality.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel coverage of the conference can be found by clicking here. A video of the full conference can be viewed by clicking here.


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Andy Moss

    As an all-day attendee at this conference, thank you for this balanced report. I felt the article in today’s Journal-Sentinel, in an effort to highlight controversy, did not do the content of the conference justice.

  2. Arlene Sershon

    As an all-day attendee at this conference and as a retired Milwaukee educator, I was particularly sensitive to the several references at the conference to the importance of K-12 education in workforce development. There was discussion about “next steps”. I propose each of us can take a “next step” to improve workforce development by supporting K-12 education and valuing educators. Educators can take a “next step” by rededicating themselves during this summer break to teaching and learning excellence in every classroom. Parents can take a “next step” by daily involving themselves in their child’s education in a meaningful way.

  3. Greg Johnson

    I would also like to applaud your balanced account of the conference. As an attendee, I valued the inputs and appreciated the effort to find ways past some of the controversy. I felt the Journal Sentinel article failed to report the balance present in the room and in some sense missed the point.

    I do think that in order to move toward greater trust, it would be particularly useful for the big brother in the relationship to step out and make the first big gesture that this is not all about finding a quick marginal advantage for Chicago. A focus on Mitchell as the answer to the ever looming third airport issue and development of inter airport transportation solutions in furtherance of that answer would speak volumes about Chicago’s seriousness in dealing with the region.

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