Metro Milwaukee Is Doing Better Than a Lot of Residents Think

A couple of years ago, I was talking with one of the boosters of the effort to brand the Milwaukee area as a global water technology hub. He told me the biggest challenge the initiative would face would be Milwaukee’s inferiority complex, or at least our unwillingness to brag about our assets.

I was reminded of that conversation recently, when the Law School collaborated with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on two major projects. On April 8, we hosted a conference in Eckstein Hall exploring the pros and cons of building a new downtown sports and entertainment facility. Those in attendance heard the president of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce describe how his city had been dramatically transformed by a series of projects that had broad community support. Then, this past Sunday, the newspaper published the first in a four-part series examining the economic future of metropolitan Milwaukee. Called “A Time to Build,” the series was reported by Rick Romell of the Journal Sentinel, under a six-month Law School fellowship established by the Sheldon B. Lubar Fund for Public Policy Research.

As part of that current series on the metro area’s economic prospects, the newspaper created an interactive graphic that allows the reader to compare the nation’s top 50 metropolitan areas. It’s easy to use, and educational, too.

After hearing so much about the Oklahoma City success story, I thought it might be interesting to see how metro Milwaukee stacks up against Oklahoma City in several key categories. It turns out, we do pretty well. We have more college graduates, higher per capita income, and a slightly lower poverty rate. I then added the metropolitan Dallas area to the mix, given Dallas’ reputation as one of the stars of the Sunbelt. Again, the comparison was favorable. Milwaukee and Dallas had remarkably similar numbers in several key indices. The comparative data are available here.

The major differences came in categories that looked at population growth (we’re growing, but slowly compared to OKC and Dallas) and at residents who were born in the same state (we win that competition hands down). Does that “born here, stayed here” factor explain our inability to acknowledge Milwaukee’s virtues? Does it create an insular way of thinking, more focused on problems than possibilities?

Metro Milwaukee faces some major challenges. We have a jarring income and education disparity. Our suburbs are prosperous but our central city is poor. And unlike Oklahoma City, we struggle for consensus on what’s best for the region. Still, the census data suggests this area, as a whole, is faring better than some observers might think, its residents included.

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