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Monday, December 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 38.0° F  Light Rain Fog/Mist
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The Madison-Milwaukee divide
Can the cities finally work together for shared prosperity?
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Credit:Eric Tadsen

What is it about Milwaukee and Madison - that potent mix of mutual disdain, disregard and ignorance that characterizes their odd relationship?

In fall 2011, I found myself mulling that question as I sat in the lounge of Uihlein Hall in Milwaukee, having a pre-concert drink before the Milwaukee Symphony performed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Why didn't I see a single familiar face from Madison milling in the crowd of music lovers?

I know from experience that serious fans - for jazz, alt country, jam bands, whatever - avidly pursue their music from one venue to another. That's certainly the case for classical lovers who patronize the Union Theater classical series: You'll see their familiar faces at Madison Symphony concerts.

So why didn't I spot those hardcore Madison classical fans at the Milwaukee Symphony? After all, it's a short 90-minute hop down I-94 to hear an orchestra that is demonstrably deeper in talent than Madison's.

Months later, when I contacted the symphonies in both cities, my suspicions were confirmed. Of the Milwaukee Symphony's 3,900 subscribers, a paltry 21 came from Dane County. Ditto for the Madison Symphony's 3,800 subscribers - only five came from the Milwaukee area, and only one from the city proper.

Not long after, I checked in with Fred Mohs, the prominent downtown attorney who, with his wife, Mary, are major supporters of the Madison Symphony. My jaw dropped when Fred told me he and Mary had never watched the Milwaukee Symphony perform in Milwaukee.

"When I want to see a big-city orchestra, I go to Chicago, New York or Washington," he told me.

That's Madison for you.

Different planets

Milwaukee might be great for a Brewers game or Summerfest, but otherwise we say fuhgeddaboudit. "Only 80 miles separate them, but it's like the cities are on different sides of the moon," says James Rowen, who has worked in journalism and for mayors in Milwaukee and Madison.

Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political scientist who served for 12 years in the Legislature, offers another celestial view. "Milwaukee and Madison are on different planets," he says. "Even as technology erases distances, the two cities remain impervious to cooperating."

Dave Cieslewicz, a West Allis kid who grew up to be mayor of Madison, has a bird's-eye view of the great divide. "Frankly, most Milwaukeeans don't give Madison a second thought," he says. "They're completely focused on Chicago and have this tremendous feeling of inferiority because of it.

"They'll tell you that Milwaukee is the world's biggest small town, because they think in that small-town way," he explains. "Madison is just the opposite. We're the world's smallest big town. We have a very different spirit. We think a lot of ourselves, and we'll tell you that."

John Gurda, the eminent Milwaukee historian, says the Milwaukee-Madison split has its roots in their distinct histories. "Milwaukee made machinery and beer, while Madison turned out laws and students," as he succinctly put it years ago in a newspaper column.

Like Cieslewicz, Gurda says that Madison thinks a whole lot of itself. "That's not atypical of university towns," he told me. "They tend to be self-regarding centers of culture. That's doubly true when they're also the seat of government. Political power emanates from here, intellectual power emanates from here. It gets into the local psyche."

In contrast, Milwaukee lives in the shadow of Chicago, fearful of cultural annexation. "We spend too much time looking down at our shoes," Gurda observes. "You can say, to quote T.S. Eliot, that our humility is endless. We think Madisonians are afflicted with hubris."

Enough already!

Wisconsin needs Madison and Milwaukee to pull together.

Economic renaissance

Simply put, that 80-mile I-94 corridor traversing Milwaukee, Waukesha, Jefferson and Dane counties could be the muscle and brain of Wisconsin's 21st-century economic renaissance.

It also, I would argue, holds greater economic promise for Madison and Dane County's prosperity than does the Thrive region, the seven largely rural counties surrounding Dane County that community leaders have identified as Madison's cohort for growth.

Those four I-94 corridor counties cover less than 5% of the state, but have one-third of its population, 44% of its college graduates and almost 40% of Wisconsin jobs, according to the UW-Extension's Center for Community and Economic Development. The synergy of a great transportation corridor connecting the state's two largest metropolitan areas seems obvious.

Tom Hefty, the retired head of Blue Cross-Blue Shield United of Wisconsin, made that case 10 years ago when he tried - and failed - to convince Gov. Jim Doyle to adopt a corridor development plan as part of the state's economic strategy.

The logic: Milwaukee is the state's finance and commercial capital. Madison is the political capital and home to a world-class research university. Waukesha County is a teeming entrepreneurial beehive. Already a good chunk of workers travel back and forth along the corridor. Major educational facilities, including a rising UW-Milwaukee, prepare the workforce.

"You combine an academic powerhouse with a commercial powerhouse, and you get job growth," says Hefty.

Do you think that Wisconsin's languishing economy could use more jobs? The answer is obvious, but the politics here are deeply dysfunctional. Talk about Mission: Impossible. It's not just Milwaukee versus Madison; their shared liberalism is abhorrent to conservative Waukesha County. Lambs will lie down with lions before the corridor politicians ever work together.

For that matter, Gov. Scott Walker's successful effort to kill the $810 million federally funded train service between Milwaukee and Madison is just one more nasty episode in that endless grudge match.

But before you turn the page, here's the thing: The corridor is coming together without these feuding politicians.

Entrepreneurial enthusiasm

In April, the tech-minded Wisconsin Innovation Network hosted a luncheon in Wauwatosa to showcase three of the state's notable web-based startups. Two were from Milwaukee, the other from Madison. Here, on display, were the tender green shoots of Wisconsin's new economy.

All three had been mentored and partially financed in their early stages by 94Labs - a venture capital outfit that explicitly played up the I-94 connection with business incubators in Madison and Milwaukee.

These were bright, young entrepreneurs, and it was hard not to be buoyed by their enthusiasm. Brendon Thomas' Shindig brings together musicians and their fans to book concerts. Dan Vilione's Offermation, featured at this year's SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, provides a low-cost template for small businesses to advertise online. And Matt Howard's UConnect allows college students to satisfy the munchies by placing food-delivery orders online. (He and his partners operate BrewCityBites.com in Milwaukee and BadgerBites.com in Madison and are expanding into 13 other cities.)

"It's slowly starting to change," Howard says of the Madison/Milwaukee divide. "The cities are starting to become more connected. The entrepreneurs in Milwaukee and the entrepreneurs in Madison - we're starting to get together."

Actually, the integration has been quietly occurring in corporate suites for several decades now - a product, in part, of Milwaukee's deindustrialization and subsequent economic decline.

"Thirty-five years ago, Milwaukee was a very different business community," says Tod Linstroth, a Madison lawyer who is a senior partner at Michael Best & Friedrich. Corporate headquarters for giants like Allis-Chalmers, Allen-Bradley, First Wisconsin, M&I, Cutler-Hammer, Pabst, Harnishfeger and others anchored the city's economy.

"There was this enormous, prestigious economic base in Milwaukee," Linstroth says. "And Milwaukee banks and lawyers handled their business services. Culturally, Milwaukee was much more closed [than today]. It had, perhaps, everything it needed to be a growing community. But what happened over time is that almost every one of those headquarters was lost. That was huge."

For accountants, lawyers, bankers and other service purveyors, this was a wake-up call to break out of the Milwaukee bubble. It brought them to Madison in search of business at just about the time that the Madison area - for so long a sleepy center of government, university and insurance jobs - was emerging as a technological hotbed with companies like Promega.

Linstroth, who has been a lawyer for 35 years, says the days are long gone when Michael Best treated Madison and Milwaukee as discrete markets: "Today, there is no question that Milwaukee and Madison are linked - they're interactive, and their communication in business is as one [market]."

Barriers to cooperation

Craig Stanley, who works in commercial real estate for Siegel-Gallagher Madison, says that technology is helping break down the walls. "It's all about mobility," he says. People work at home, and they work on the road. Their iPads and cloud computing keeps them in touch with headquarters. "Offices are becoming touch-down places" for professionals who are otherwise out and about, he says.

Stanley was raised in Milwaukee and worked in Chicago real estate for 13 years before moving to Madison. He mourns the killing of the train link that would have connected Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago. "I can get more work done on the train than I can in the office," he says.

"You look at how mobile our economy is becoming, and the train would make so much sense. Yet our political system and cultural baggage keep us from seeing the region as a whole," says Stanley.

That same point is emphasized by political scientist Don Kettl, who taught at UW-Madison before decamping for the University of Maryland. He used to be the go-to prof when Wisconsin governors appointed a bipartisan task force to sort out a contentious issue. Not that the recommendations would go far. Kettl calls the corridor idea another "it ought to happen but never will" kind of Wisconsin story.

The problem, he explains, is that state laws and traditions pit communities against one another as they bid for new development. Winners get all the property tax revenue; losers get zip. Why should they cooperate?

Kettl's skepticism is widely shared among the people I interviewed. The politics of a corridor strategy are seen as impossible. For example, Paul Jadin, who ran the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. before taking the top post at the Madison-based regional development effort called Thrive, sees "a good marriage" if Madison and Milwaukee were to hook up. But he admits there are "historical and even statutory" roadblocks that prevent a comprehensive I-94 corridor strategy.

Even Hefty, who thinks the logic for a corridor plan is stronger today than a decade ago, isn't optimistic. His dour view isn't focused on governance structures, but the retro nature of Wisconsin politics. He thinks the Democrats are too beholden to the unions and lack a pro-growth wing. The business community, meanwhile, is dominated by the large legacy companies of the last century. "The base of both political parties isn't focused on growth but on preserving the old industries," Hefty says.

Corridor commuters

Where I didn't hear that pessimism was from the young entrepreneurs and business professionals who routinely travel back and forth between Madison and Milwaukee. If anything, they were mystified by the pols not recognizing the corridor's economic synergy.

Take Andrea Gage, who jokes, "People ask me where I live, and I say 'I-94.'" A former TV reporter and Capitol staffer and recently hatched lawyer, she moved with some reluctance from Milwaukee to Sun Prairie to work in Madison. She now commutes back to Marquette for graduate studies in dispute resolution. "I find it really troubling that more people don't take advantage of both cities," she says.

Couples who have a partner working in each metro area have learned to split the difference, settling in midpoint communities like Lake Mills, Johnson Creek and Pewaukee. Last year, I told the story of 20-somethings Rachel and Michael Centinario, who moved to Lake Mills to ease their commute. Michael was a planner for the village of Deerfield, while Rachel drove to downtown Milwaukee to lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board. "[Dual] commuting is a lot more common than I expected," Rachel told me.

Overall, almost two out of five working adults in Lake Mills and Johnson Creek are commuting to Milwaukee, Waukesha or Dane counties, according to UW-Extension data.

Some corridor commuters schlep even further. Karin Borgh drives from Bayside near Milwaukee to Fitchburg, south of Madison, to run Promega's nonprofit education institute. A road warrior for 15 years, she knows the license plates of fellow commuters making the same trek to Madison.

Borgh also sees Madison's strengthening ties to Milwaukee - everything from Madison kids choosing UW-Milwaukee for college, to more Milwaukeeans attending Promega's seminars. "I think there's tremendous potential synergy between Madison and Milwaukee," she says.

Matt Kures, a UW-Extension numbers cruncher, sees the same dynamic. He points to the population and commuter trends along the corridor. "It really reinforces the notion that we live and work in a regional economy," he says. "Job opportunities don't stop at county lines."

Politics

The appeal of the I-94 corridor - not just Milwaukee to Madison, but Milwaukee to Chicago - should be too compelling to ignore. A few years ago, the Wisconsin Technology Council, citing the critical mass of higher education institutions, skilled workers and tech companies, dubbed it the "IQ Corridor," with Minneapolis/St. Paul as the western endpoint.

Kettl agrees. Looking at the Milwaukee-Madison section, he says, "At a time when everyone is looking for fuel for 21st-century jobs, all the raw materials seem there, including relatively low-cost land and relatively high-skilled workers."

That economic synergy is seen by Reed Hall, a retired Marshfield Clinic executive who is interim head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. "If we're going to move Wisconsin forward, we need Milwaukee and Madison to work together," he says.

Kettl points out that that "some of the most interesting economic success stories of the last generation have been built on transportation corridors and inter-urban networks, whether the Research Triangle [in North Carolina], Silicon Valley or the Austin info-tech effort." And then there's China, "where transportation corridors have fueled the nation's economic boom."

I-94, Kettl says, is "a not-overly-long pipeline connecting the state's population center with its research hub, with easy transportation access to everyone in the world through the highways and O'Hare" international airport.

The real question is if, in a hostile political environment, corridor commerce can be encouraged, shaped, maximized and done right. That last point is important.

One only needs to look at the ugliest stretch of highway in Wisconsin - U.S. 41 through the Fox River Valley - to see the havoc of unrestrained urban sprawl along a major road.

Hefty had the right idea when he proposed that the I-94 corridor plan include preservation of farmland and Kettle Moraine terrain. He also had the right idea when he told Jim Doyle that the governor needs to take the lead.

Given their parochial concerns, it's impossible to imagine our feuding local politicians getting together to advance the greater good. That's why a far-sighted governor like Pat Lucey, who revamped state government in the 1970s, or Tommy Thompson, who re-created the welfare system in the 1990s, is needed for the visioning and strategizing. Both Lucey and Thompson were political masters who could do the heavy lifting of policy innovation.

In a perfect world, at the governor's urging the Legislature would create a development zone along I-94 and set in motion a state-supervised planning process. Of course, cows could also fly, the Brewers bullpen could have a closer, and I could lose 30 pounds.

Miracles should not be expected.

But small steps add up, especially when they're taken by the corridor pioneers who are creating Wisconsin's 21st-century economy. "Reality is that politics always follows economics and not the other way around," says Lee, the UW-Milwaukee political scientist. In this case, the pols are far behind the curve.


A shorter version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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