My move back to Wisconsin from California in 2001 was largely fueled by my desire to live in Milwaukee - a community that simultaneously embraced the construction of the daring Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum and the destruction of the divisive Park East freeway spur. It seemed to me that such forward thinking, risk-taking endeavors surely revealed a city on the brink of an urban renaissance. I moved to a city on its way up.
Now, in 2008, I'm left wondering what will be Milwaukee's next big thing. Of course, I'm under no illusion that it will be a quick fix to our deeply entrenched economic and social woes. But, I do harbor a hopefulness that bold new ideas can fuel a resurgence of civic pride and national attention that can only help our great city.
Bold ideas. We need more of them to sustainably grow the economies of the upper Midwest. In an age where the Midwest's cities have been left to address the gaps left by decades of federal indifference, urban economic development will require bold ideas from visionary public sector leaders at the local level.
What ideas qualify as such? One example is the idea hatched by the City of Atlanta to use tax increment financing (TIF) to fund its ambitious BeltLine project. From the Forum's recent Research Brief:
The City of Atlanta has long been known for its dynamic business environment and explosive growth. Unfortunately, it is also known for sprawl, air pollution, lack of greenspace and traffic congestion. In an effort to address these “quality of life” issues and reassert the region’s competitive position, the City of Atlanta recently approved the creation of a TIF for its “BeltLine” project. The BeltLine is currently the largest redevelopment project in the United States and will encompass 8% of the city’s total land area and generate $1.7 billion dollars in revenue. The project will transform a ring of blighted and underutilized land encircling the city to multi-use trails, parks, transit improvements, affordable workforce housing and Atlanta Public Schools projects. In what promises to be the most ambitious use of TIF in the country, after 25 years the BeltLine TIF will contain over $20 billion of increment value—larger than the sum total of all TIF districts in the state of Wisconsin. Atlanta’s Beltline TIF is not only big, it’s also innovative and is continually cited as a model for transparency and accountability.Let's be clear, a developer didn't walk up to Atlanta's city hall one afternoon and request a $1.7 billion TIF. The BeltLine is a public sector led project at its core.
In Milwaukee, TIF has been used to fund bold public-sector driven initiatives like the construction of the downtown riverwalk, the demolition of the Park East freeway, the clean-up of the Menomonee Valley, and the revitalized 30th St. Industrial Corridor. What other opportunities might there be?
I can think of two:
- A modern transit system—Use TIF to finance station and land development costs associated with transit upgrades (express buses, KRM, high-speed rail)
- Slow employment and income growth—Use TIF to finance growth in emerging regional industry clusters (financial services, water technology, advanced manufacturing) as identified in the M7 Strategic Framework.