Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What’s the right peer group for Metro Milwaukee?

Identifying the right group of metro areas with which to compare Milwaukee is a frequent dilemma for Public Policy Forum staff. Our answer is ever evolving. Typical decisions affecting our choices include level of geography (city, metropolitan statistical area, seven-county region), population size, data availability, and project timeline and resources. Depending on the project, we may be looking for best practices that might be replicable in our region or how other cities tackled similar issues to those faced by Milwaukee.

In our Innovation Index, launched in spring 2010, a narrow list of benchmark cities was adopted, combining typical Midwest metros (Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati) and a few existing or rising innovation leaders (Austin, Portland, and Kansas City). The benchmark cities were chosen to provide both a regional context and a set of peers that could set the bar high for Milwaukee’s innovation strategies.

Recent studies from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York may reshape how peer groups are determined. Both studies establish new comparison typologies based on the shared economic and/or demographic characteristics of metro areas, as opposed to geographic location alone.

In State of Metropolitan America, Brookings establishes new metro groupings that include Border Growth and Mid-Sized Magnets, Diverse Giant/Next Frontier, New Heartland, Skilled Anchor, and Industrial Core. Milwaukee falls into the Skilled Anchor category, which is defined as “slow-growing, less diverse metro areas that boast higher-than-average levels of educational attainment.” Brookings’ broad analysis of social, demographic, and economic data shows that metro regions can be grouped based on the types of challenges they’re facing, which the authors argue may allow similarly positioned regions to develop “common solutions.”

The Federal Reserve Bank’s Knowledge in Cities assigns cities to 11 different knowledge clusters based on occupational skills requirements and existing industry employment patterns. The clusters include Making Regions, which have high knowledge of manufacturing, but low knowledge in commerce occupations; Understanding Regions, which have very high knowledge of arts, sciences, and the humanities, but low knowledge of manufacturing; and Building Regions, which have high knowledge of construction and transportation. Several areas in Wisconsin (Eau Claire, Green Bay, Racine, and Wausau) fall into Making Regions. Milwaukee is grouped with the Enterprising Regions that have high numbers of jobs in commerce and IT fields. Other enterprising regions are Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Portland, and St. Louis.

Ultimately, determining the most appropriate metro peer groups may depend on how the Milwaukee region defines itself and its vision for the future. Will the City of Milwaukee’s ranking as the 4th highest in poverty level define the city and link us with similarly impoverished regions? Or will the rise in a skilled computer workforce be leveraged for regional economic gain and link us with the Austins, Pittsburghs, and Seattles who are strengthening their information infrastructure? The answer may lie in how our region responds to its challenges and whether it is able to successfully build on its strengths.

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