Thursday, June 23, 2011

Economic development strategies in Milwaukee County: E pluribus unum?

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele recently named Brian Taffora as Milwaukee County’s new director of economic development. According to the press release, the new director will be responsible for achieving Abele’s economic development priorities as well as several larger goals.

Two of the specific priorities, as one might expect, involve job creation in the Park East and further job growth within the County Grounds in Wauwatosa—both county-owned properties. More generally, however, the new director indicated that he will focus on the creation of partnerships among municipalities, universities, trade groups, and businesses located in the county in order to retain and grow existing businesses and increase new employment and economic opportunities.

An upcoming report by the Public Policy Forum on economic development goals and activities in Milwaukee will indicate that the new director is entering an economic development landscape well-populated by a variety of municipal agencies, public corporations, regional partnerships, and non-profit organizations. All of these entities cite a variety of economic development initiatives in which they are engaged. In fact, many of the economic development activities mentioned by Mr. Taffora are being undertaken, at least partially, by these other economic development participants.

If the county intends to increase its economic development efforts, as the county executive and his new economic development director seem to indicate, several questions should be considered at the outset.

First, what specific strategies will the county use to recruit or expand businesses in the area and how will these strategies complement the current strategies used by municipalities in the county? Second, if county government wants to increase economic development-based partnerships within the county, how will its efforts complement—or differ from—regional economic development organizations such as the Milwaukee 7? Third, what role will the county play when economic development disagreements arise between municipalities in the county such as the recent dispute over the potential relocation of Eaton Corporation? And finally, what economic development tools does the county have at its disposal that might advance regional priorities?

As the region emerges from an extended economic downturn there is little doubt that increased efforts, like those of the county, are needed. However, with such a variety of economic development efforts occurring in southeastern Wisconsin, perhaps the next question for the entire region is how to achieve greater coordination and prioritization among participants.

For example, as strategies change and new organizations form, would the region benefit from an economic development plan that explicitly states, for the public and the organizations themselves, what role each group will play? Stay tuned for the Forum’s forthcoming economic development report—tentatively scheduled for release in late summer—for detailed analysis of this and other strategic economic development questions facing our region.

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