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Milwaukee mayor says ‘thriving’ city a source of construction opportunity

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Milwaukee’s growth in real-estate development has made it a premier source of jobs in the construction industry.

That was one of the key focuses of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s annual State of the City speech on Monday. Barrett also mentioned his love of cranes and put into context all the construction activity going on in the city’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

For instance, $3.4 billion worth of projects in the city have been completed since 2005, with another $1.7 billion worth of projects under construction, he said.

Much of the demand has come following the economic downturn sparked by the 2007 housing crisis. But since then, things have been looking up for the city, both literally and metaphorically.

City officials typically credit the building boom to major catalytic projects such as the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons, a $450 million, 32-story headquarters building going up near the corner of Mason and Van Buren streets.

Not only does the building boom result in new office buildings and more apartment units — it also provides residents with employment opportunities, Barrett said.

“Construction job growth climbed 9.3 percent in the city between the first quarters of 2015 and 2016,” he said, adding that this growth “far outpaced state and national construction job growth in the same period.”

Ken Kraemer, executive director of the construction group Building Advantage, attended the State of the City address, which was held at the Harley-Davidson University and Conference Center on West Juneau Avenue.

Kraemer agreed with the mayor that Milwaukee had plenty of job opportunities for people working in construction, noting that the industry has seen an uptick in the number of labor hours logged over the last several years. He said that in 2009, southeast Wisconsin logged 11 million construction-labor hours, while just last year it got close to 16 million.

“So you can see the jump that happened,” Kraemer said.

City officials have in recent years put much emphasis on introducing unemployed or underemployed residents to careers in construction.

Chief among those efforts is Milwaukee’s Residents Preference Program, which typically requires 40 percent of construction-labor hours on certain projects to be performed by certified resident-workers. These requirements are included on any city construction contracts and any private developments that receive at least $1 million from the city.

City leaders last year overhauled the resident-hiring program to, among other things, provide more opportunities to people who live in poor neighborhoods and further encourage the use of resident-workers as apprentices.

Among the numerous projects tied to the Residents Preference Program’s goals is the construction of a $124 million downtown streetcar.

Barrett suggested that the streetcar project may be the first in the nation to include resident-hiring goals.

“Our hope is construction jobs on the streetcar will be an important lifetime step,” he said.

The streetcar will initially consist of a 2.1-mile downtown loop, which will serve as the base for more line extensions, as well as a 0.4-mile lakefront line. Omaha, Neb.-based Kiewit Corp., the project’s general contractor, is scheduled to begin laying tracks next month.

Kraemer said Kiewit has been working with local workforce-development groups, such as WRTP/BIG STEP, to help meet the project’s inclusion goals. He added that he was confident the resident-hiring requirements would be met on the project.

Barrett cited all the development activity in part to try and combat negative images that some may have of Milwaukee of being “a drain on the state.”

The truth is the opposite, he argued. He cited Wisconsin Department of Revenue data showing that, of the total amount of tax money the city sends to the state, lawmakers in turn send back just 66 percent of that amount back in state aid in 2015.

“I call that the ‘Milwaukee dividend,’” he said.

Barrett also called for state lawmakers to lift restrictions on the city that prevent it from levying its own sales or income taxes.

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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