Monday, April 2, 2007

Big in Japan

According to a recent The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, there are 92 skyscrapers under construction in Tokyo, Japan. Even at this pace of construction, it is reported that the supply of office space in Tokyo will not keep up with demand due to years of robust expansion in Japan's service sector.

With Milwaukee's downtown office vacancy rate hovering around a dismal 15%, it might be time to look to Japan for a quick lesson in downtown development.

The catalyst in Tokyo's office building boom, according to the WSJ article, is Japan's shift from a manufacturing economy to a high-end service economy built on marketing and finance jobs.

Milwaukee is going through a similar economic restructuring. But a recent report by The Brookings Institution highlights Milwaukee's inability to adequately replace lost manufacturing jobs with high-value service sector jobs. In other words, don't get caught up in the hype that blames Milwaukee's economic woes on manufacturing job losses. Instead, blame our economic malaise on the region's sluggish employment growth in its service economy (see below chart by Brookings).

The story is simple: Everyone is losing manufacturing jobs (yes, even China). Some regions are transitioning. Some are not.

Sure, we could subsidize developers in hopes of spurring new downtown construction. But, if the Tokyo boom teaches us anything, finding ways to bolster a high-end services economy may be a more efficient strategy in building a postcard-worthy skyline for Milwaukee's downtown.

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