Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Milwaukee’s Relationship with the Chicago Mega-City Revisited by David Holmes

[ I am going to take a break until early 2013. See you folks in the New Year. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this piece by David Holmes that follows up on my “Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun” piece. He makes some of the same points I did at the conference, as well as some new ones I found interesting. Bye for now! – Aaron. ]

I was intrigued by Aaron’s recent post “Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun Piece” which focused on the relationship between Milwaukee and Chicago and the notion of whether “proximity to Chicago or another mega-city represents an unambiguous good,” or – as posited by Aaron – may actually be more of a curse than a blessing, and something that drains vitality instead of increasing it. This is a topic that interests me both from the perspective of a long-time resident of Milwaukee and as a long-time fan of the City of Chicago. There are likely unique combinations of factors to consider in this type of evaluation for every city pair – including the distance between the cities, the presence or absence of high speed and/or low cost transit options between the cities, and the relative size. Although I did not comment on Aaron’s post at the time of publication, I thought it would be useful to consider some specific examples of ways in which Chicago enhances or decreases Milwaukee’s economic vitality as both the article and many of the comments on Milwaukee-Chicago and other city pairs, seemed to lack specific examples of both positive and negative impacts.

I will begin by presenting several examples of ways in which Chicago’s proximity appears to negatively impact Milwaukee’s economic vitality. I will then consider the impact of Chicago’s proximity on professional services, which Aaron evaluated in his recent series of articles on Chicago as a potential key growth area for Chicago’s economic future. Finally, I will conclude with examples of ways in which I believe Chicago’s proximity adds to Milwaukee’s economic vitality and/or quality of life.

Ways in Which Chicago Drains Vitality from Milwaukee

1. Competition for High End Specialty Retailers and Restaurants. The first specific example of a way in which Chicago drains economic vitality from Milwaukee is in the competition for certain types of high end retailers or restaurant chains that have a national presence, but one that is limited to perhaps 30 or 40 locations. When I travel to other Midwestern cities that are more geographically isolated or more dominant in their geographic region (such as Kansas City or Indianapolis) I am usually surprised by the number of high end specialty stores or restaurants that have a presence in those cities but none in Milwaukee. Chicago’s proximity is almost certainly a major factor in this dynamic, and a perception (rightly or wrongly) that either the business can’t sustain two locations in SE Wisconsin/NE Illinois, that residents in Milwaukee could be served by a Chicago location. A good recent example was the announcement approximately two weeks ago that: (a) Nordstrom is planning to open a store in Milwaukee in 2013, and (b) Milwaukee is the largest city in the U.S. that does not currently have a Nordstrom store. Chicago is almost certainly a major factor in Milwaukee’s status as the last metropolitan area of its size to get a Nordstrom store.

In researching this point, I came across a research article titled “Can We Have a High-End Retail Department Store? How to Tell if Your Region is Ready” which presented a formula for predicting the number of high end department stores (defined as Macy’s Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Saks) that could be supported in a metropolitan area based on its population, land area, and the percentage of households with at least $150,000 of income per year. Although the article did not present the findings for Milwaukee, I followed the researcher’s definition of high end department stores, and reviewed the current number of locations for these five stores that are in Chicago, Milwaukee, and several peer Midwestern metropolitan areas, using data available at The findings generally confirmed my impression that Milwaukee is underserved by high end department stores – with 38 of these stores being located in the Chicago metropolitan area, 8 in both Kansas City and Columbus, 6 in Indianapolis, but only 2 in Milwaukee. Although the research study did not consider proximity of a metropolitan area to a neighboring larger metropolitan area, I think it likely that this is a factor, and one in which Chicago’s proximity negatively impacts Milwaukee.

2. Competition for Federal Offices Another example where I believe Milwaukee loses out economically due to its proximity to Chicago is in serving as a location for regional federal offices. I know this from personal experience in developing business plans for pursuing federal work, and discovering that in terms of regional facilities (versus those that are present in nearly every major city such as postal service, federal courts, social security offices, etc.), Milwaukee is pretty much limited to a Forestry Service Regional Office and a Veterans Administration Regional Headquarters. Although I don’t have any detailed data to back me up, I did review the locations of regional offices for five agencies, including the IRS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. EPA, Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), and determined that Chicago has regional offices for 4 of these 5 agencies (the USACE, U.S.EPA, FRB, and SBA). Among peer cities, Kansas City has regional offices for all five agencies, followed by Minneapolis/St. Paul (with regional offices for three agencies); and Cincinnati, Memphis, and St. Louis (each having two regional offices for these agencies).

What this means economically varies from agency to agency, but for Kansas City, the office for the IRS regional service center reportedly occupies an 11-story building with 900 employees (based on data from Emporis). In addition to direct economic benefits to cities that host a greater number of regional federal offices, there are likely significant indirect benefits as well, as consulting firms are more likely to establish locations in cities that host federal regional offices, as there are benefits to engineering firms from being in the same cities as USACE regional offices, benefits to accounting firms from being near IRS regional offices, benefits to financial firms being near FRB regional branch offices, etc. Although there may be other major cities in the Midwest that are also losing out in the competition for regional federal offices, I believe that Chicago’s proximity puts Milwaukee at a particular disadvantage, and my impression is that on a per capita basis, Milwaukee has fewer federal offices than almost any of its peer cities.

3. Ranking as a Metropolitan Area A third example of a possible negative impact from Chicago’s proximity on Milwaukee’s economic vitality occurred to me as I was researching the example presented above on the competition for high end retailers. In trying to confirm that the Indianapolis and Kansas City metropolitan areas are in fact comparable in size to Milwaukee, I noticed that both are ranked ahead of Milwaukee – with Kansas City currently ranked as the 29th largest metropolitan area (with 2,052,676 residents) and Indianapolis ranked as the 35th largest metropolitan area (with 1,778,568 residents) versus the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA’s ranking as the 39th largest metropolitan area (with 1,562,216 residents). This size difference could provide an explanation as to why Milwaukee would be chosen after these cities as a regional location for certain businesses.

However, Milwaukee’s ranking below Indianapolis and Kansas City is arguably more of a statistical artifact than reality, and due to Chicago’s proximity and the manner in which the U.S. Office of Management and Budget choses to split the two metropolitan areas. Indianapolis and Kansas City, which are more geographically isolated than Milwaukee, have MSAs that extend over approximately 3,200 and 8,000 square miles, respectively, whereas the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA is defined as a much more compact 1,500 square mile area. If Chicago was not located in as close proximity to Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha Counties would almost certainly be included as part of the Milwaukee MSA. Adding the 361,000 residents in Racine County (defined as a separate metropolitan area) and Kenosha County (defined as part of the Chicago MSA) would result in a Milwaukee metropolitan population of 1,920,000 residents in a land area of 2,100 square miles – in theory, a market greater in population than Indianapolis and only 5% smaller than Kansas City, in a far more compact land area than either MSA.

Competition for Service Businesses

A fourth potential negative influence of Chicago on Milwaukee’s economic vitality that I considered (but rejected) is the competition for serving as a location for professional service firms. I considered this factor partly in response to Aaron’s recent series of articles on Chicago, which noted Chicago’s status as the Midwestern center for professional services such as management consulting, technology consulting, business process outsourcing and legal services. In theory, large firms with greater resources based in Chicago might out compete smaller firms based in Milwaukee. While I am not familiar with all categories of professional services, for law and engineering firms with which I am familiar, Chicago’s proximity and large pool of major firms appears to have no negative impact on the vitality of similar firms based in Milwaukee. This is probably most surprising with law firms, given that Chicago not only has 17 of the top 250 largest law firms in the U.S., but has an even more impressive 5 of the top 13 firms (based on data at Internet Legal Research Group). Milwaukee has 5 of the top 250 firms (including Foley and Lardner at No. 29), which not only compares favorably with Chicago on a per capita basis, but compares even more favorably with cities such as Charlotte (with 2 of the top 250 firms), Cincinnati (3 firms), Columbus (2 firms), Indianapolis (3 firms), Kansas City (4 firms), and even Houston (5 firms). None of these cities has a firm ranked as highly as Foley and Lardner at 29. The main point is that in spite of the incredible concentration of major law firms in Chicago, there is no evidence that this has negatively impacted Milwaukee’s vitality as a center for legal services. The fact that this is the case is significant for Milwaukee’s downtown, as nearly every major office building proposed or constructed in the last decade in the downtown had one of these major law firms as its anchor tenant.

Examples of Ways in Which Chicago Increases Vitality

Having considered some of the ways in which Chicago’s proximity drains vitality from Milwaukee, following are several examples of significant ways in which I believe Chicago increases Milwaukee’s economic vitality and/or the quality of life for residents of Milwaukee:

1. Enhanced Travel Connectivity. It takes 60 minutes to drive from downtown Milwaukee to O’Hare International Airport. For all intents and purposes, residents of Milwaukee have two airports – one (General Mitchell International Airport) that is 10 minutes from downtown, and the other (O’Hare) that is 60 minutes from downtown. Which airport is used for a particular flight is a choice made by Milwaukee residents on a flight by flight basis, based on the most favorable combination of price, availability of direct flights, and/or preferred departure or arrival times. Quite often, General Mitchell International Airport is the choice because similar flights from the same airlines are actually cheaper than from O’Hare (a competitive pricing factor that is almost certainly due to the Chicago’s proximity and the presence of O’Hare as an alternative airport for Milwaukee residents). Even excluding Midway Airport from the discussion (which is appropriate as Midway is not convenient for routine use by residents of Milwaukee), Milwaukee residents through the combination of General Mitchell International Airport and O’Hare have better air travel options than residents of almost any other major metro area in the U.S. (New York City, Chicago, and perhaps Atlanta, being possible exceptions). Another benefit related to air travel that Milwaukee residents take for granted is the convenience for visits by friends from other countries. Chicago will almost always be one of the lower cost U.S. travel options for foreign travelers.

2. Enhanced Entertainment and Recreational Amenities/Opportunities. It is nice to be located adjacent to a city that has some of the best museums and cultural institutions in the US. Although there is some inconvenience in driving 90 minutes to downtown Chicago, there is the option to take Amtrak, or even Metra ($5 from Kenosha). I’ve thought about this when visiting geographically isolated cities with great (and often deserved) reputations such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Seattle, etc. I would even add some sizeable (>5 million resident) metro areas to the list such Miami, Dallas, and Atlanta. The cultural attractions in these cities do not match those present in Chicago, such as the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum of Natural History, or the Chicago Art Institute. For friends and family travelling from other countries, a trip to Milwaukee means they get a trip Chicago thrown in for free. It also means that these visitors will never run out of interesting places to explore available through the combined attractions in Milwaukee and Chicago. For visitors to other even fairly large metro areas in the U.S., the entertainment options for out-of-town visitors will typically be exhausted within a week or less. Not so in Milwaukee, thanks to Chicago. This is a quality of life factor more than an economic vitality factor, but one that should be a consideration in businesses trying to recruit employees from other major metropolitan areas to Milwaukee. Although I think Milwaukee has a pretty large and attractive set of amenities on its own, due to the proximity of Chicago and the amenities available in our mega-city’s “southern” downtown, residents in Milwaukee have access to amenities that are matched by few cities in the world, and this has economic value in the increasing competition for highly skilled and mobile workers.

3. Enhanced Business Expansion Opportunities. For businesses based in Milwaukee, having a metro area with 9.5 million residents an hour away is a significant plus. For entrepreneurs based in Milwaukee, Chicago presents an exceptional opportunity for expansion, as the cities are close enough together that it is possible for someone living in the Milwaukee area to oversee branch offices or locations in both the Milwaukee and Chicago metropolitan areas. Although one could argue that businesses in Milwaukee have additional competition from businesses in Chicago, this type of analysis varies greatly from business to business with no consistent rule. For major businesses located in Milwaukee, if they need access to some very specialized consulting expertise, if it isn’t available from firms based in Milwaukee, it will almost certainly be available from one or more firms based in Chicago, providing a very deep business support talent pool and a competitive advantage for firms based in Milwaukee relative to those based in more geographically isolated cities.

4. Enhanced Global Mindset. This is a little more subtle advantage, and a quality of life enhancement versus an economic vitality enhancement. Even if I don’t go to Chicago for several months, I like having Chicago nearby. I’m conscious of it. It is definitely one of the reasons I like living in Milwaukee, even if it is impossible to precisely quantify this aspect. In my mind, I always know that I have all of Chicago’s assets readily available to me, whenever I might feel inclined to “imbibe” (but without the hassle of actually having to live in Chicago, as well as not having to live in a state that is currently ranked 49th or 50th in most financial health measures). When I travel (and I suspect this is the case for most people) I almost always measure the city I am visiting in my mind to my hometown of Milwaukee. Whenever I visit some nice, but geographically isolated metropolitan area, the quality of life in that city is frequently downgraded in my mind as I can imagine how quickly the interest of living in that city would wear off once I exhausted the list of unique attractions in those cities. Chicago is a component of how I measure Milwaukee against those cities, as all of its attractions are in fact readily accessible to residents of Milwaukee. I suspect there are many other cities where a similar dynamic plays out – such as for residents of Baltimore including the attractions and opportunities available in Washington DC in their similar assessments.

5. Increased Groundedness. This is a subtle point and one that occurred to me only recently. Milwaukee is a city that definitely does not have an inflated view of itself. I think part of this is the result of its proximity to Chicago, and knowing that by a hundred different measures, Milwaukee does not match Chicago. If there were fifty new 50-story skyscrapers constructed in downtown Milwaukee over the next 100 years, I am pretty sure that our skyline would still fall short of Chicago’s. I think there is a tendency of other somewhat “successful” cities (Charlotte and Indianapolis come to mind) to always be chasing some grand ambition. Although there are definitely positive aspects to ambition, there can also be a tendency to pursue goals that really aren’t important, as well as a greater reluctance to realistically address obvious shortcomings. Milwaukee, through its proximity to Chicago, is relieved of this aspirational burden, and can simply go about its business in a quiet, but usually highly effective way.

David Holmes is an environmental consultant focused on brownfield redevelopment issues. He is also a co-author of a book on the history of the Chinese community of Milwaukee: “Chinese Milwaukee” (published by Arcadia Publishing in 2008).


Cities: Chicago, Milwaukee

36 Responses to “Milwaukee’s Relationship with the Chicago Mega-City Revisited by David Holmes”

  1. the urban politician says:

    You perhaps kind of touched on it, but one other benefit for Milwaukee is that you can tap a pool of 9.5 million people for services.

    For example, a lot of Illinois residents head up north to Milwaukee, Green Bay, Door County, The Dells, Lake Geneva, etc. They spend money on hotels, restaurants, casinos, boat slips, bed and breakfasts, etc.

    Really no other midwestern city has such at their disposal.

    I do agree with pretty much this entire post, but I diverge from the author in one way. I live in Racine, but the “proximity of Chicago” has not been enough for me. Perhaps Racine is just a lot more dead than Milwaukee (no doubt about it!), but I have decided I’ve had enough and am buying a home in Libertyville, IL.

  2. the urban politician says:

    Also, I’d like to introduce the flip side to the author’s argument:

    The presence of Milwaukee also increases the quality of life for Chicagoans by increasing the “flavor” of Chicagoland. I can head up to a smaller, more laid back city that has a lot of history and character, and with all of the gentrification and new development Milwaukee has seen, partake in fine dining, calm beachside recreation, casino and major sporting events, enjoying some pretty good museums, etc without feeling that I’ve left the civilized world. Notice that I left shopping off of the list, and that is because indeed the author is correct that Milwaukee really has a dearth of it relative to its size.

  3. Tá Bảo says:

    “proximity of Chicago”

  4. David Holmes says:

    I think Racine presents an interesting case in being geographically located 1/3rd of the way to downtown Chicago (30 miles south from Milwaukee and 60 miles north of Chicago). Therefore, it should benefit to a greater degree from the positive aspects of proximity. But due to the physical separatation of Racine’s downtown from I-94, the actual drive time from downtown Racine to downtown Chicago is essentially the same as from downtown Milwaukee (at this moment projected on Google maps as 1 hr 34 min for Racine and 1 hr 38 min for Milwaukee to downtown Chicago). I think this illustrates that for different city pairs, the separation in actual travel time is more important than separation in straight line distance on a map.

    This is something I have also noticed in the past in working with subcontractors in south suburban Chicago on projects in north suburban Chicago. My travel time from downtown Milwaukee was sometimes less than their travel time depending on road construction, rush hour, etc. This is another factor why businesses based in Milwaukee can often be competitive in competing for work in the Chicago area (in particular north suburban Chicago).

    Regarding comment 2, that is a thought that crossed my mind as well. I think the benefits definitely go both ways, and benefits of Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago to Chicago residents are probably much greater commonly recognized or freely admitted.

  5. urbanleftbehind says:

    I live in northern lake county Illinois and I find Milwaukee to be a less hassling alternative for events and other activities. Higher end retails because of the proximity of hawthorn and north rook. Also there is a thriving outlet corridor along i94 from Kenosha to burned. It could be a chicken/egg question- are s.e. Wisconsin shoppers used to waiting for high-end goods to hit the outlets. Finally there could be more competition for household dollars due to outdoor pursuits – boats, snowmobile s, fishing, hunting.

  6. urbanleftbehind says:

    Pardon my hasty entry above. Retail suffers due to proximity to north shore malls and also outlet malls in Kenosha and burned (il).

  7. Alon Levy says:

    TUP: do Chicagoans who are not from Milwaukee ever visit Milwaukee? I’m asking because Bostonians do not visit Providence or Worcester without very good reason. In the geek community, it’s hard to get Bostonians to go to conventions in Rhode Island unless they have prior Rhode Island ties, and traditionally it was also very hard to get them to come to Worcester.

  8. Mario says:

    Milwaukee is the new cool getaway city for the Chicago hipster kids. Lakefront brewery, the bars and clubs, summer fests are a big attraction. So has become Madison, Wi. It seems every weekend I hear about somebodies trip to Wisconsin for beer, cheese, sausage, farmers markets, fishing, skiing, or just a change of pace from Chicago.

  9. Ziggy says:

    Regardless of past and current rivalries, ultimately it is in the long term economic interests of both cities to leverage and market their synergies in the global marketplace. I’m especially intrigued by the idea of the western Great Lakes “owning” summer the way that Orland, Miami and points south “own” winter. To me, the Chicago / Milwaukee corridor is similar to a classic shopping mall with anchors on either end and lots of specialty shops of interest in between and around the anchors. There are compelling reasons to visit this “mall,” whether its to check out the anchors or visit the numerous other destinations.

    10 years ago I did a one week driving tour of museums in the Netherlands and Belgium, including Amsterdam, Maastricht, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. Going in, I was worried about the amount of time I’d be spending in my car. As it turned out, the morning trips between cities was like driving from Chicago to Milwaukee, or from Madison to Naperville. At the time I didn’t really get how close these cities were to each other in terms of travel time.

    In many respects, the cultural attractions and natural features within the Chicago / Milwaukee region, which includes Madison, Evanston, Naperville, Aurora, Joliet, and even Rockford (which has a surprising number of high quality, family oriented destinations that no one knows about), could be positioned in a similar manner. There are plenty of others in addition that would also be appealing to a variety of visitors if marketed in a more comprehensive manner.

    I’ve said before that there should be billboards in Orland on the 4th of July that say “Cooler Near the Lake,” and the image depicted could be Chicago’s Field Museum or Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum.

    I mention this only because it represents extremely low hanging fruit in terms of improving the image and identity of Chicago, Milwaukee and the Midwest in the global marketplace. Right now, marketing and promotional efforts are not looking at the big picture nearly enough, and Mr. Holmes post helps to underscore current challenges in a positive manner.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Dear Great Lakes region,

    You do not own summer. You have hellishly hot summers and an uninteresting terrain.


  11. Ziggy says:

    It’s true that for about three weeks every year – roughly between Jul 20 and Aug 10 – Chicago can be pretty steamy. But compared to the St. Louis area where I grew up, summer in Chicago is practically like living in the mountains. Chicago / Milwaukee is different KC/St. Louis/Cincinnati weather wise in the summer.

    It’s also true that Northern Illinois terrain is perceived as flat, but that’s why God invented Wisconsin. The four state Driftless area is quite beautiful.

    My point is that Chicago/Milwaukee and the greater surrounding region has great cultural amenities that have not gotten nearly enough props in the national consciousness. It’s gotten a bad rap because of the long winters, but summers are as fantastic as southern summers are oppressive.

    A couple of years ago I was listening to ESPN talk about the upcoming NBA playoffs between the Bulls and Miami Heat. Someone asked Charles Barkely who his pick was. He said he was rooting for the Bulls because Chicago was best city to hang out in the summer. Sir Charles is exactly right. The trough of winter may suck, but the summers are almost always pretty spectacular if you like hanging out in cities.

    Hey, if you can afford to travel to and hang for long stretches of summer in Vancouver, god go with you. But if you live between roughly Nashville, Wichita and Cincinnati and want to take a couple of breaks from the tropic summer steambath of the south and mid-south, Chicago is a compelling option.

  12. Ziggy says:

    Just to add… if anyone finds the prairies to be “uninteresting terrain,” they should read up on Frank Lloyd Wright and, especially, the great landscape architect Jens Jensen. Jensen, along with George Kessler, are two of America’s the greatest and most under-appreciated thinkers and designers who shaped urban landscapes.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    I think it’s the last paragraph that really explains what’s happening. Chicago is close to the geographic and population center of the US, so people from large parts of the US know it. There’s a thesis I’ve been bouncing with Aaron for a while, which is that Chicago is a much less globalized city than New York, in the sense that it’s influenced more by local factors than by global ones.

    My frame of reference for American summers is New York, which is pretty bad in the summer, and I’m told by reliable sources that Chicago is even worse. Of course it’s even worse farther inland or south, but if you want mild summers, that’s what the West Coast is for. Chicago’s selling point is not that, but proximity.

  14. Alon Levy: Summers are not hot here, and WRT terrain, mountains and ocean are overrated.

  15. urbanleftbehind says:

    Ziggy: Milwaukee shares similar ethnic geography with Miami. The detached festival park and east side is like Miami beach, both have the black ghetto north and the Hispanic area to the SW of downtown.

  16. the urban politician says:


    Chicago certainly has the potential to “own” summer if it and the surrounding region can leverage their strengths.

    Having never lived here, I imagine you probably just don’t know how much goes on in this region during the warmer months, and just how much everything comes alive.

    It would perhaps behoove you to get out of your apartment in New York, stop writing theses, and perhaps get some real experience out here in order to determine whether this is true or not. Not to be offensive, but please don’t be another New Yorker content to downplay what Chicago has to offer because you don’t actually know better.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    I haven’t lived in New York in a year and a half. I live in Vancouver; if I still were in the US, I’d bring up Seattle, San Francisco, or maybe Los Angeles in my first comment.

    I’m sure that Chicago has plenty to offer in the summer. So does every other city. This doesn’t make Chicago’s summers the equivalent of Florida’s winters, which give Orlando, Tampa, and Miami something that draws people from far out. Not when the argument for why people would go there is that it’s easier to travel there if you live in the Midwest or the Upland South.

    Perhaps a better way to phrase this is to ask what exactly are Chicago’s strengths, and to what extent they’re summer strengths rather than general strengths. Being in the middle of the US is a general strength – it means it’s easy to get to from much of the US, among other advantages.

  18. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, good weather in the US midwest is six months or so, minus the aforementioned hellishly hot midsummer weeks. This has the effect of temporal compression, where most of the really interesting outdoor events occur between about May 1 and mid-late October. The huge outdoor parties (quarter-million or so) that are the Kentucky Derby and Indy 500 are the starters. So there really is a lot going on.

    (Having lived in the upper and lower midwest, as well as both coasts, I’m not buying the “not as bad as St. Louis” argument, though. Hot, humid weather regularly plagues every midwestern city, and it’s getting worse.)

    I’d add that Michigan “owns” summer in the midwest already. Again…closer to more people than WI and MN. And the Michigan “coastline” offers the opposite of the west shore of Lake Michigan: not urban. (Apologies to Grand Rapids.) Thus, a getaway. Places like South Haven, Holland, Grand Haven are no further from the Loop than Milwaukee. Prevailing westerlies provide lake-effect cooling.

  19. Fitz says:

    Alon: Vancouver does have interesting terrain. Unfortunately, it’s so ridiculously expensive that it doesn’t matter. You could buy a nice 4 BR SFH in a great Chicago neighborhood for what you would pay for a 1BR condo in “hip” Vancouver neighborhood.

  20. Fitz says:

    Alon: Also, I’m sick of hearing people bring up L.A. Yes it does have nice terrain. No, you can’t expect to the whole “beach to mountains” thing in one day (despite what the commercials say) without sitting in horrible traffic for most of the day. Also, you forget that L.A. and San Francisco are located in the most dysfunctional state in the union.

  21. Lou says:

    hmmm. Kenosha is part of Chicago… maybe its the commuter rail. If Milwaukee had commuter rail to Kenosha and Racine as well as other places it might be a larger region. Oh well.. Scott Walker killed that project.

  22. David Holmes says:

    I don’t know that Milwaukee in combination with Chicago could ever ”own” summer. People are motivated to travel for very specific reasons, and even if Milwaukee and Chicago were to build on existing attractions, and develop what was universally recognized as the most compelling collection of summer entertainment options, they would not displace Orlando as a destination for families with children or Las Vegas for those with adult interests. On the other hand, who’s to say what’s possible when you consider how far Indianapolis and Louisville have leveraged single day events).

    Regarding the heat, I will note that the 100 degree temperature reached in Milwaukee on July 4th this year was the first 100 degree day in 17 years. Ninety degree days are actually pretty rare, due to the cooling effect from Lake Michigan which keeps temperatures pleasant on most summer days for at least a ten-mile strip along the lakefront regardless of the wind direction. Fairly or unfairly, we are stuck with our cold weather reputation, but any claim that summers here are hellishly hot is not accurate even in the worst summers (2012 being one). Although summers are likely to get hotter over the next several decades, I’d be willing to trade having a 100 degree day every other year (instead of every 17 years), in return for what is projected to be a 6-week snow season in a few more decades, something that I read in an article about a week ago when we reached a record 288th consecutive day without measurable snow.

  23. Peter Brassard says:

    This discussion of weather and geography is really a side issue. It has little to do with the relationship of Milwaukee and Chicago or to other comparable pairs, such as, Providence/Boston, Newark/New York, Baltimore/DC or Tacoma/Seattle. If you live in a specific region, other than for an occasional ski trip, warm winter escape, or exotic vacation, people generally stay close to their home region and utilize what that region has to offer. Besides jobs, culture and tradition are perhaps more important than geography and climate.

    I grew up in the Providence area and have lived in Manhattan for over 30 years. For the last decade or so my time is spit between Rhode Island and New York. Indeed the peak times of summer and winter in the Northeast can be nasty and unpleasant. Given that I have a choice, for me I wouldn’t live anywhere else than the two places that I do now.

    Recently for family reasons, I’ve spent a few weeks a couple times a year in Seattle. It’s a great city. I truly appreciate Seattle’s beauty, topography, climate, and people. But using the old adage that’s usually reserved for New York, “it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” My experience with the Midwest is limited, but I’m sure for many Midwesterners they feel the same as I do about the Northeast.

    I would argue that being too close to the sun has burned smaller cities much more than they have been helped. If you look at any of the Milwaukee type cities 70 to 100 years ago they were much more autonomous and prosperous, if not powerful, than they are today. It isn’t just federal jobs that have been lost to neighboring sun giants—it’s everything from banks to utilities. The sun giants have acted as siphons, extracting jobs and people from their smaller neighbors for decades. On a smaller scale the Milwaukee type cities have created the sun effect on their neighboring smaller cities, such as Milwaukee to Racine or Providence to Fall River.

    A Northeast example: When Amtrak first inherited the New Haven Railroad, the structures and personnel of the old railroad were still in place and utilized. Conductors and engineers and other personnel would board trains from places like Pawtucket, New London, or Bridgeport to work on the trains. Control towers and repair yards were located in many small cities along the corridor. Today control and the jobs that go with it are in just a few cities, like Boston, New Haven, New York, or DC and train crews are mostly from DC or Boston (listen to the accents, they’re not Providence or Stamford) or sometimes New York.

    Perhaps as mega-city regions continue to expand, it will reinvigorate smaller Milwaukee type cities, but more likely they will continue to be hollowed out shells of their former selves that will continue to be servants of their neighboring sun giants. There needs to be different approach or thinking to rebuild the these smaller cities.

  24. the urban politician says:

    I’d like to use this thread to bring up something that’s been lingering on my mind lately, and Chris Barnett kind of touched on it with his Michigan comments.

    Just yesterday I watched another one of those “visit the Gulf Coast” commercials, and it got me thinking. The “gulf coast” commercials are a joint effort by the states of Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi to attract tourists to the gulf coast area to recreate. They are really well done commercials and certainly compel one to take a serious look at planning a vacation down there.

    So what if a similar effort were made by a colloboration of states in the midwest? Specifically, I am thinking about Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Brand it something like “spend your summer on the Lake Michigan coast”. There are too many attractions to count, but some that come to mind that can be highlighted:

    1. Door County, Wisconsin
    2. Milwaukee dining, architecture, lakefront beaches, ethnic fairs and the world-famous Summerfest
    3. Lighthouses on Lake Michigan
    4. There are 3 very good summer ethnic festivals in Racine, Wisconsin: Greekfest, Armenian fest, and Italian festival
    5. Chicago area attractions: this is of course the motherlode of them all, with an almost countless list of activities, but music festivals, Ravinia festival, street art and ethnic fairs, shopping, architecture, dining, musuems, nightlife, boat tours and boat parties, etc etc come to mind
    6. Indiana dunes, casinos/resorts in and around Michigan city
    7. The cute lakefront towns on the western shore of Michigan, such as the Havens, Holland, Saugatuck with boating, boutique shopping, restaurants
    8. Southwest Michigan wineries
    9. Upper peninsula Michigan for more of a “getaway” with camping, beautiful beaches, hiking through natural state Parks, freshly caught whitefish, friendly people
    10. Throw Mackinac Island in there as well as a rather unique attraction.

    I really think that with a more concerted, regional effort, something wonderful could come to fruition if the marketing approach was right.

  25. Ziggy says:

    Urban Politician: “So what if a similar effort were made by a colloboration of states in the midwest? ”


    Perhaps there’s been some cooperation at some level between states’ marketing endeavors, though I haven’t heard of anything significant (but I also haven’t done due diligence on this).

    The list that UP came up is great. The Midwest is a big, huge geography if you include the Plains. There are many subregions that deserve a more attention and love, though a lot them are doing a better job of marketing with each passing year.

  26. David Holmes says:

    Peter – Thanks for returning the thread to the main focus. In order to better compare the economic vitality of the two cities, it’s probably worthwhile to review some recent economic data. Although I’m not certain what would be the best measure, one possible measure is per capita gross domestic product (GDP), which is available for 366 U.S metro areas on the Bureau of Economic Research website. Using the data for 2010 (the most current data set available for download) the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA (with per capita GDP of $48,974 in chained 2005 dollars) was ranked 39th of the 366 metro areas. This was only 4 spots behind the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville MSA which was ranked 35th, and only 3 spots behind the San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos MSA which ranked 36th. It’s worth noting that Milwaukee was ranked ahead of Austin TX (at 46th) and Atlanta at 50th, as well as approximately 89% of the other U.S. metro areas included in the ranking.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your points, as I think you provide some additional good examples of the negative economic impacts of large cities or “sun giants” on their neighboring smaller cities. However, on a per capita GDP basis, Chicago and Milwaukee are doing essentially the same (separated by only 4 positions in the ranking of 366 metropolitan areas). Milwaukee’s economic performance is in fact probably better than Chicago’s considering Chicago’s approximate 15% higher cost of living versus Milwaukee.

    I don’t know if Milwaukee is an exception to the rule, but the fact is that its economic vitality on the whole does not appear to have suffered relative to Chicago as reflected in the GDP data. Milwaukee also is not accurately characterized as a “hollowed out shell.“ In an article posted by Richard Florida on Atlantic Cities earlier this year on “Cities with the Most Corporate Clout,” Milwaukee had the top ranking of any U.S. city in corporate (based on the number of Fortune 500 headquarters per million people in the metro area). While it’s fair to question the ranking system used by Florida in this analysis, I would have been surprised if it Milwaukee had not been ranked somewhere in the top 10.

    I do agree that that Milwaukee is in need of further economic reinvigoration, but based on GDP rankings versus metro areas such as Austin, Atlanta and San Diego, it’s really not doing all that badly (especially considering that those cities have had multiple major macro-economic factors working in their favor for the past 3 or 4 decades). This is one reason I wanted to comment further on Aaron’s original article, as it seemed there were some misconceptions both about Milwaukee, and its relationship with Chicago, which served as distractions from digging deeper and trying to better understand the dynamic relationship between the two cities.

  27. Ziggy says:

    David, all due respect but the absence of a concluding summary to your post left the door wide open for responders to take your observations in any relevant direction. No matter. The issue is where do the two cities go moving forward? The 35,000 foot answer to me is that there are plenty of synergies to leverage collectively. At least part of the problem with Midwest communities large and small, as Richard Longworth has pointed out many times over the past few years, is dated rivalries that no longer serve the interests of either competing interest in the global marketplace. Ultimately, I see much more value of closer co-operation and overall marketplace positioning than in teasing out the nuances of the strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of Chicago are Milwaukee’s. The weaknesses of Milwaukee are Chicago’s. And vice versa. The same is true of the communities that hover in their orbits however close to a radiating center they may be. I’m probably being too optimistic about the prospects of near term cooperation, but there seems to be a lot of opportunity for big picture thinkers down the road.

  28. Chris Barnett says:

    Ziggy and TUP, unfortunately the majority of the non-Chicago Great Lakes assets are Michigan’s, and they have done an excellent job with the “Pure Michigan” regional ad campaign.

    The issue of regional tourism campaigns is that people tend to travel within a day’s drive if not headed to a major destination like the coasts, Vegas, or Orlando. There is incremental gain to Indiana in trying to keep Chicagoans from crossing the Michigan line, and to Michigan in luring those Chicagoans northeast instead of north or east.

    To me the GDP data suggest a couple of possibilities: 1) that the local Chicago and Milwaukee economies are probably pretty closely coupled if GDP is very similar; 2) that Milwaukee’s legacy of high-value and somewhat non-substitutable manufacturing continues to help it; 3) that being the historical center of a continental-scale consumer product industry with a huge advertising budget (beer) helps keep the city relevant and slightly higher-end compared to other mid-sized cities. (In that last regard it is similar to Cincinnati.)

  29. the urban politician says:


    You argue that people tend to travel within a day’s drive if not headed to a major destination…etc etc.

    That’s assuming the status quo. And today, that status quo is just that: Chicago, Indiana, Milwaukee, and the western coast of Lake Michigan are completely separate entities. And to those who do not know these places intimately, are 4 places that need to be visited on 4 different trips.

    My point is to actually shake up the status quo. You mention interstate rivalries as a barrier, but surely similar such rivalries had to be overcome by the gulf coast states for them to come up with their ads. I see no reason why the midwest can’t come up with the same.

    Finally, Pure Michigan just like the Illinois ads is inherently flawed because it is much to vague of a draw. You cannot just tell people to come visit an entire State the size of Michigan. What is needed is a more focused message: like a geographic feature around which towns, cities, and resorts are concentrated. It is a much neater package. I think a “Visit the Lake Michigan coast this summer”, if marketed in the US and even internationally, could have a good shot at success.

    David, my apologies for taking this discussion off topic.

  30. Chris Barnett says:

    TUP, you do realize that the Gulf Coast ads were part of BP’s penance for Deepwater Horizon, and not some superregional cooperation?

    I don’t think we want a refinery accident at Whiting just to get ad money from BP for “Tourism Lake Michigan” in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

    I also think you missed one of my points: Milwaukee is a harder pull because most Midwestern one-day-drivers have to go through and past Chicago to get there. Michgan can pull from all the cities from St. Louis to Cleveland, including Chicago, Indy, Louisville, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, Columbus (except for diehard Buckye fans), Cleveland. The driving route from every one of those cities to Milwaukee goes through Chicago.

    Thinking bigger, or regionally, doesn’t change ground truth. Interstate cooperation will always be driven by a gain/loss calculus, and I don’t see an upside for Michigan in sharing (diluting) its biggest tourism assets.

    To loop this back, tourism will NOT be a differentiating driver for Milwaukee.

    It’s still going to be high value-add manufacturing, as well as water, energy, grain and forest, closer to Milwaukee than to Chicago. The world still runs on Allen-Bradley switchgear, lumber, paper and beer. :)

  31. the urban politician says:


    No, I did not know that BP had anything to do with the Gulf Coast ad.

    Also, I don’t know where you get the idea that Milwaukee somehow has to choose between an ad promoting tourism to its region and trying to improve its status in high value-add manufacturing, water, energy, etc etc.

    And having said that, since when is this just about Milwaukee? The State of Wisconsin has a HUGE coastline along Lake Michigan, nearly as large as Michigan’s itself.

    I guess I don’t see the argument against this. It is a relatively minor commitment of time and funds, doesn’t detract any of the parties involved (Chicago, Michigan, Milwaukee, etc) from their primary economic goals, but the benefits could be significant by way of introducing a new paradigm of how our region can be perceived.

  32. Chris Barnett says:

    TUP, whether it is right or not, many economic development folks have come to think that the kinds of attractions and amenities that get people to visit an area might also attract new or relocating businesses.

    I think there is now some degree of integrating convention-visitor development strategically with business attraction and retention. It’s partly a reaction to Indianapolis’ well-documented success (discussed amply on this blog).

    So rather than approaching this question in an entirely geographic and functional manner, I am looking at it somewhat strategically: where can a city or region get bang for its buck in attracting people. In selling the region to outsiders (or “close-by-ers”), I think it’s definitely a matter of having a clear and consistent message. And it is pretty hard to measure the success of generic and overly-broad regional campaigns.

    This is why I focused on Milwaukee emphasizing its “not-Chicago-ness” (natural assets): wonderful place to live and play, and a good place for certain kinds of work related to the natural assets and existing economic clusters.

  33. Peter Brassard says:

    I’ve never been to Milwaukee and know little about the city. To clarify, I meant that these smaller cities are hollowed out as compared to their own 19th or early 20th century past—the rust belt. Also hollowed out by suburbanization. I made assumptions about Milwaukee based on my east coast knowledge and observation, not from data.

    Should mass transit and density become a larger part of this discussion? Besides commuter trains, the historic mass transit for smaller cities were streetcar systems, which were mostly dismantled as a result of the GM/Firestone et al conspiracy 60 to 80 years ago.

    I know that it’s generally true in the Northeast that suburbanization and lower density of smaller and mid-sized cities has affected them much more than larger ones. I assume the same holds for Milwaukee. Typically smaller cities became more auto-centric relying much less on mass transit.

    If Milwaukee’s GDP is not that far off from Chicago’s, are we in fact discussing the lack of or less vibrancy or activity within the central core of Milwaukee or other similar cities, which happen to be near a larger ones?

    Rhode Island revived its commuter rail over 20-years ago. Providence has become the second busiest MBTA station outside of Boston’s CBD. Providence is one of the few places where reverse commuting occurs and in large numbers in the MBTA system. It’s not uncommon for a few hundred people to get off at Providence Station from an arriving Boston train during rush hour. DC and Baltimore, and Manhattan and Stamford have also developed strong reverse commuting relationships.

    Besides tourism, reinforcing Milwaukee and Chicago commuting could help strengthen Milwaukee’s economy. Reviving Milwaukee’s internal mass transit could be another.

  34. Idyllic Indy says:

    I agree with the comments about Milwaukee being a great, more laid-back, but still urban weekend vacation spot. Most every summer, I drive there from Indianapolis, and I drive right through Chicago to get there. It can be a bit of pain getting through Chicago, but it certainly need not be an insurmountable obstacle to luring visitors from the south and east. Chicago is great, but there’s definitely something to be said for getting an urban experience without $40/night parking, $20 bar cover charges, and $8 beers.

  35. David Holmes says:

    Ziggy and others: My apologies for suggesting earlier that off-topic comments weren’t appreciated. This is definitely not the case. To continue the discussion regarding tourism and what is possible or impossible, I think one of the most interesting examples to consider is the American Club Resort in Kohler, Wisconsin, which is located approximately 60 miles north of downtown Milwaukee. The resort claims to be the only AAA Five Diamond Resort Hotel in the Midwest and features four championship golf courses, two of which (Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straights) have hosted multiple major golf championships. Blackwolf Run hosted the Women’s U.S. Open in 2012. Whistling Straights most recently hosted the Men’s PGA Championship (in 2010). The resort has been ranked by several golf publications as the top golf resort in the U.S., and was ranked as the best overall U.S. resort by Golf Digest in 2011.

    The fact that a golf resort of this caliber could be located in a northern state (and not in North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, etc.) almost defies imagination. One of the most extraordinary characteristics of the American Club is that it is located on the campus of the Kohler Company, and directly across the street from the Kohler Company’s historic industrial complex, portions of which date back to the early 1900s. The complex reportedly still employs nearly 7,000 workers, and includes an 82-acre landfill which is a Superfund site, as well as a separate Superfund site in the form of the Sheboygan River which flows through the center of the campus. My guess is that no other heavy industrial complex in the world features a resort, let alone a resort of such quality that it has been ranked by at least one organization as the top resort the U.S. The Whistling Straights course itself has an interesting background in having been reclaimed from a 560-acre abandoned military airfield bordering two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline that contained abandoned missile silos and more than 80 dump sites.

    The American Club is a worthwhile example to consider for several topics. First, if a still active heavy manufacturing complex can add a 5-diamond resort – anything is possible, with time, money, vision, and consistent leadership. The Kohler Company’s ability to do this (as a private company headed for the past several decades by a single visionary leader) versus the Chicago-Milwaukee mega-city is a topic for separate discussion. Second, tourism versus high-value added manufacturing as an economic driver is not necessarily an either-or proposition. The American Club provides an incredible example of both economic drivers coexisting, and in fact, the Club and it’s amenities (including a Design Center and top rated spa featuring Kohler Company products) serve as a powerful brand building and marketing tool for the Company’s manufacturing products (plumbing fixtures). Harley-Davidson, Inc. provided another example of this in the Milwaukee area with the opening in 2008 of a $75 million museum near downtown Milwaukee that is now one of the city’s top tourist attractions as well as a brand building tool for Harley. I think the American Club also demonstrates the importance of a company (or a region or a state) understanding the value of building a powerful and compelling brand. This is one reason why I am reluctant to criticize the tourism campaigns for Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc. as I think they are valuable brand building tools for these states even if the television adds don’t necessarily affect my summer travel decisions. I think the Kohler Company brand building efforts (through the American Club and golf courses hosting major championships) are great for Wisconsin as they not only work as brand building tools for the company’s products but also for southeast Wisconsin. It wouldn’t surprise me if the television audience for key demographic groups for the PGA Championships hosted at Whistling Straights exceeded the audience for the State-of Wisconsin funded tourism campaigns.

  36. Sam says:

    I think Peter’s comment (#33) hits the problem right on the head. Milwaukee has a serious problem with under-investment in infrastructure that would encourage the re-population of the inner city, especially away from the lakefront. I think the fact that we have a relatively healthy regional economy and a pretty dense, walkable built form, especially in the city should be looked at together, and we should be investing in infrastructure that encourages that like bicycling, local business districts, public space, and public transit. The problem is that there isn’t the money and chutzpah at local or state level to make major investments in much of anything besides freeways.

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