Conference Gives Milwaukee a Good — But Not Great — Progress Report as a Water Hub

Ten years ago, Marquette Law School sponsored a conference, “Milwaukee 2015: Water, Jobs, and the Way Forward.” Speakers at the conference, including Wisconsin’s then-Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, put forward a vision of Milwaukee becoming a world leader in water expertise with a Milwaukee area economy boosted by an influx of water-based jobs and companies.

On Nov. 5, 2019, a decade later almost to the day, the Law School convened a follow up conference (titled “Milwaukee 2025: Water, Jobs, and the Way Forward”) with some of the same speakers, as well as others, to ask how things have been going and what lies ahead.

How would you rate Milwaukee’s record on becoming a water hub? Mayor Barrett responded that the area has moved in the right direction. “I won’t give us an A plus, I’ll give us a solid B for moving in that direction,” he said. “We have changed the perception of Milwaukee in a significant way in the last 10 years.”

Marquette University President Michael R. Lovell, a major proponent of the emphasis on water, said the goal in 2009 was to make Milwaukee a global center of excellence for all things related to water, “something like the CDC for water,” a reference to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Lovell said, “We have not gotten there yet; we are still striving to do so.” Milwaukee should be proud of what has been done, including the creation of The Water Council, the Global Water Center, and the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Lovell said.

But in their remarks and in the remarks of other participants in the conference, including entrepreneurs and business leaders, there was a clear sense that there is a long way to go for Milwaukee to reach the vision set out in 2009.

One important aspect of that: Growth in water-related jobs and businesses has not been what was anticipated.

In opening the conference, Professor David Strifling, director of the Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative, played video clips from the 2009 session. He also compared the state of water-related businesses in 2009 to more recent data, including from a report by the Brookings Institute in 2018. “The growth looks a little flat,” Strifling said. The number of water-related jobs was put at about 20,000 then and at “more than 20,000 jobs” in the Brookings data. The number of companies involved in water-related enterprises has gone up, but the economic impact of water sector of the regional economy was estimated at about $10.5 billion a year both in 2009 and in 2018.

Rich Meeusen was CEO for Badger Meter in 2009 and was one of the speakers then who was most optimistic about Milwaukee’s potential. Now retired but still involved in water businesses, Meeusen said at the current conference that things have played out well for the Milwaukee area “for the most part.” He said, “I think we are getting on the map” for people around the world who are involved in water issues.

But Meeusen said that, at least so far, he was wrong in his 2009 prediction that industries in parts of the United States where water supplies are tight would turn to places like Milwaukee to locate operations. So far, they have coped with their water supply by steps such as conservation, he said. But he thought that in the long run, his prediction would come true.

Val Klump, dean of the UWM freshwater sciences school, was generally optimistic about the future of Milwaukee as a center of expertise and research. But, he said, ”we need a critical mass of people” who are experts in the field. “We just don’t have enough of that talent here,” Klump said. The addition of 200 expert scientists and technology creators to the Milwaukee area could spark major change, he said. He said he thought that over the next decade, people would figure out how to bring such talent here.

Joe Kirgues, co-founder of Gener8tor, which promotes start-up entrepreneurship in Milwaukee and elsewhere, said Wisconsin has seen growth in investment capital in recent years – but Michigan and Minnesota have seen much more growth. He said large amounts of venture capital money generated in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest through pension funds and other sources is invested elsewhere, and he urged that more of it be invested closer to home.

Kris Ropella, dean of the Opus College of Engineering at Marquette, said the climate is improving for innovation. But, she said, the engineering world as whole, including the Milwaukee area, needs to do more to diversify its ranks when it comes to race, ethnicity and gender. Diversity would lead to more creativity and growth, she said.

Mark Mone, chancellor of UWM, said that a key to doing well in the next five or ten years will be more recognition of the opportunities for growing Milwaukee as a water hub – and more awareness of the costs of ignoring those opportunities. Milwaukee “could not be better situated” for taking advantage of economic and academic possibilities in a world where water is becoming an increasingly important resource, he said.

Video of the morning-long conference may be viewed by clicking here.


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