Public Policy Forum Blog

Does Milwaukee County have a bigger role to play in economic development?

On its face, the recent announcement that Wauwatosa mayor Jill Didier is leaving office to become Milwaukee County's new Economic Development Coordinator is promising news on the economic development front.

As a former mayor, Didier obviously has strong connections to area business and municipal leaders, which should bolster the county's economic development activities.

In addition, the specific jurisdiction over which she presided is key. Wauwatosa is home to the Milwaukee County Grounds, which houses the county's Parks Department, Behavioral Health Division, and Juvenile Justice Center, as well as the Regional Medical Center. As the Forum has suggested in previous reports, determining the county's appropriate ownership of land and buildings on the County Grounds in light of the land's value, and within the context of its diminished workforce and fiscal challenges, should be a major priority for policymakers. The new Economic Development Coordinator's familiarity with those properties and County Grounds tenants could be quite helpful in that regard.

The Forum also is pleased to see that another research finding recently trumpeted in our Assembling the Parts report - that greater coordination is needed between metro Milwaukee's impressive array of economic development initiatives and players - has been cited in connection with Didier's appointment. As reported in the Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, the county's Economic Development Director cited that finding and said the new coordinator position - as well as Didier's appointment to it - reflect the county's intention of playing an important role in such coordination.

A word of caution may be in order, however, in light of another finding from Assembling the Parts. In examining the role that Milwaukee County traditionally has played in economic development, we note that its tools and resources are rather limited, which explains its limited activities in this area. Unlike other economic development players, for example, the county cannot grant tax incentives or credits to businesses; has little access to real estate or business financing; and can't create tax incremental districts. Consequently, its traditional role has centered primarily on managing and marketing its own real estate.

The coordination and "cheerleading" role envisioned by county leaders takes the county in a new and expanded direction and may prove to be very beneficial, particularly in light of Mayor Didier's background and connections. The only question is whether an entity that lacks economic development tools will command the respect needed to coordinate the region's players, and whether such an entity can truly make a difference in business attraction and retention efforts.

In light of the region's pressing economic development needs, it is difficult to fault county leaders for trying to carve out a larger role for themselves in the region's economic development landscape. As they do so, however, they may wish to keep in mind our Assembling the Parts warning that their efforts "not simply duplicate, but rather strategically complement, those conducted by other players."

Author: 
Rob Henken