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Are urban areas at a development disadvantage?

By Marie Rohde

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett made no bones about it.

“I’m angry,” Barrett said in his weekly e-mail letter.

The root of Barrett’s ire stems from the fact that Eaton Corp., now located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, is being wooed to move to the Milwaukee County Research Park in Wauwatosa using both tax incremental financing and $20 million in federal New Market Tax Credits designed to encourage business development in poor communities.

Patrick Curley, the mayor’s chief of staff, said locations in the city – and in Menomonee Falls – are still in play as new sites for the company that employs 145 workers. The problem is that a fluke might allow the company to get tax credits for the poor and move to an affluent suburb.

The Milwaukee County Research Park is more than 92 percent developed already, Curley said.

Everyone acknowledges the importance of the economic health of the city to the region and to the state, Curley notes. But that seems to be out the window now that development and redevelopment throughout the state is almost non-existent.

Milwaukee belongs to M-7, the regional cooperation group, Curley noted.

“M-7 has agreements about not poaching, but those are hard to maintain,” Curley said. “When GE moved (to the research park), they got TIF help backed by Milwaukee County bonds. (Former Mayor) John Norquist just said, ‘Oh well.’”

But hasn’t the city done its fair share of poaching? The city agreed to build a parking structure to encourage Manpower Inc. to relocate from nearby Glendale.

Manpower, Curley said, was considering locating outside Wisconsin. The deal kept the business in the region.

“We have greater needs,” Curley said of the city. “We have 73 percent of the region’s poor people. The suburbs and the exurbs are happy to say, ‘Let them take care of the poor and we’ll continue to grow.’ The playing field is not level.”

It’s usually more expensive for a city to prepare a site to attract a business.

“We can’t TIF clean corn fields for development,” Curley said. “We are responsible for cleaning up old industrial sites that have been polluted over decades.”

The redevelopment is not limited to Milwaukee, he said. Most cities are in the same position, including Janesville, Beloit and Racine.

“It’s time for us to have a conversation about what we are doing here,” Curley said.

Marie Rohde is a staff writer at The Daily Reporter. She covers development issues in Milwaukee.

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