Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, is a leader of the effort to improve our economy through regional cooperation. One way to accomplish this is to understand we live in the Chicago Megacity, which is defined as the 21-county region stretching from the Milwaukee area down through Chicago into northwest Indiana. In 2012 at a conference titled, “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity” at Marquette Law School, she was on a panel of business leaders.
Ahead of the July 28 conference, “Public Attitudes in the Chicago Megacity: Who are we, and what are the possibilities?” once again sponsored by the Marquette Law School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Taylor talked about what has been accomplished in the last three years and opportunities for regional cooperation in the future.
Taylor has been president of the GMC since 2002. She is on the boards of the Milwaukee Water Council, the Governor’s Council of Workforce Investment, and VISIT Milwaukee.
She talked with former Journal Sentinel editor Marty Kaiser earlier this month.
Q. In 2012 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global economic think tank based in Paris, issued a 332-page report that advocated closer ties within the Chicago-Milwaukee economy, and declared that the region “is at a tipping point.” The report was not optimistic about the future of the region, but said that if leaders worked together, the region could become more competitive in the global economy. Have you seen signs that the area has begun to work together in the last three years?
A. The OECD report was sponsored by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce and, out of that, grew the Alliance for Regional Development, which has tri-state representation and actually has met fairly regularly. Its staff received a U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development award to begin its operations. They have been focused on four areas including green growth, human capital, innovation, and transportation. A lot of the work crosses over, such as green growth and innovation. In terms of actual work product coming out of the Alliance for Regional Development, it has been more in the research area. On the water connection, there has been a lot of work over the last three years on the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, particularly on the part of Racine Mayor John Dickert and the Water Council Co-Chair Paul Jones. Paul is the Alliance’s Wisconsin chair and has worked along with Chicago’s chair, Mike Mullen, and Mayor Dickert on the concept of an agricultural fishery ladder where we utilize the UWM School of Fresh Water Science’s patented and innovative aquaculture to create a line of fisheries across the Midwest. The result of that work with Chicago has been increased cooperation. For example, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago actually joined the research arm that has Marquette and UWM involved in water research. They are among the core partners in the NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center on Water Equipment and Policy. So there are some connections that are happening. I would note that as the elected officials change and business leaders change, it is leadership at the end of the day that makes things happen or not. I don’t see that there has been a strong commitment on the elected leadership side – and Illinois is part of that.
Q. Is there a disconnect between business leaders and elected governmental leaders about the importance of regional cooperation?
A. Could be. As administrations change, even the people that they work with in the business community change. Mike Mullen was [Chicago] Mayor Daley’s appointee. It would be great to see the mayor of Chicago [Rahm Emanuel] step up and show an interest because a framework has been established for this relationship to work.
Q. Are you more confident of regional cooperation going forward?
A: I think the key has got to be to find the big opportunity. I don’t know if the big opportunity is discovered yet. The big opportunity can create a strategic win that benefits everyone.
Q. Couldn’t it be water?
A. Water is probably the easiest. We are all part of the Great Lakes Compact. We all deal with water issues in different ways. We are certainly strong in water technology. For example, Peoria is very strong in water technology as well. It may not always be linking up the big cities. The framework to form these relationships is where the region can form a central advantage.
Q. Beyond water, in what other areas could there be cooperation in the region?
A. Transportation could be a big one — look at rail transit as well as air transit. Chicago grew because it is a huge rail hub. So as we look at logistical management, it could be a big advantage. We are the gateway to Canada, and so is Detroit. So how do we think of ourselves more in our areas of strength and our areas of connectivity? We need to build that more.
If we could get the members of the 21-county region congressional delegation working together, we could have an impact on policies. There is a lot of power in that. The other is the research power that exists between Chicago and Milwaukee and on up to Ann Arbor. It’s tremendous power. If we could link up in some ways around our strong core areas — whether it’s water or logistics or automation — the tide would rise for all ships.
Q. Can you see the state governments combining to put money into marketing tourism that went across state lines?
A. I don’t think marketing tourism is low hanging fruit because I think it’s too localized. I think you have to look at something that is a broader economic piece that has a bigger bang for producing regional economic growth. I think the issue with tourism is when you look at going from Gary all the way to Chicago to Milwaukee, you’ve got a fairly large area to traverse. When Chicago tried to get the Olympics, there were a number of people in Milwaukee and Madison who were working with Chicago. Maybe it is some major sporting event that creates the opportunity, but I don’t know that there is a long term lasting relationship that comes out of those events.
Q. Do you think the public in Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin believes that it is important to be better connected to Chicago and Northern Illinois?
A. I think the closer you live to Chicago, the more you understand. If you talk to people in Kenosha and Racine, that’s much more of a blend, particularly to what’s happening in Northern Illinois and Chicago. When you start getting into Milwaukee and go even farther north to Green Bay, I don’t know that there is as strong a connection.
Q: When you are talking to someone in Chicago, how do you get them interested in Milwaukee?
A. I think this is where you have to go to very specific value propositions. People will come to the table and be pleasant with each other and talk about regional cooperation, but until there is a specific project that people come together to work around and form those relationships and the trust that comes out of working together on a project, I think it’s hard to sustain anything. People know it’s a good idea to get together, but they need to know something relevant comes out of getting together.
Q. So have we missed any other ways to get the region working together?
A. I am glad to see you are having the conference. I think continuing to raise awareness on regional cooperation is very helpful. It’s not an issue that gets raised often. We are happy to exist in our own communities. The vision isn’t painted of how the region would look differently if we really were operating with a similar economic climate with similar economic drivers.
[Ed. note: Marty Kaiser is the former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is involved in the planning of the July 28 conference. For more information, on the upcoming conference, including how to register to attend, click here. For more information on the 2012 Megacity conference at the Law School and a link to video of the event, click here.]