Public Policy Forum Blog

Downtown Milwaukee shows resilience during the 2000s

A new report from the Brookings Institution analyzes the geography of private sector job growth and decline in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas between 2000 and 2010. It finds that while the share of jobs located in and around central business districts (CBDs) declined during the decade, the Great Recession at least temporarily halted job decentralization in most metro areas. The Milwaukee metro area followed some national trends and bucked others, losing jobs at a faster pace than the national average while retaining most jobs located within three miles of downtown.

Overall, the nation’s 100 largest metro areas shed nearly three million jobs between 2000 and 2010 – a loss of 3.9% – while metro Milwaukee lost 53,163, or 6.8%. Nationwide, the massive job losses inflicted by the Great Recession more than wiped out the modest gains made during the previous part of the decade. As the tables below show, most jobs lost in the 100 largest metro areas between 2000 and 2010 were located within three miles of a CBD, while in the Milwaukee area the vast majority of jobs lost were located between three miles and 10 miles from downtown, an area that includes the city’s outer neighborhoods and most Milwaukee County suburbs.

Job growth among the 100 largest metro areas, 2000-2010





% Change

Total jobs 





Within 3 miles of CBD





3-10 miles from CBD





10-35 miles from CBD






Job growth in the Milwaukee metro area, 2000-2010





% Change

Total jobs





Within 3 miles of downtown





3-10 miles from downtown





10-35 miles from downtown






During the 2000s, the Milwaukee area was one of only nine metro areas in the country to see an increase in the share of jobs located within three miles of the CBD. In 2010, 24.1% of metro Milwaukee’s jobs were located within three miles of downtown compared with 22.6% in 2000. Washington, D.C. was the only metro area in the nation to increase both the number and percentage of jobs located within three miles of the CBD during the 2000s.

Narrowing in on the period between 2007 and 2010, when most of the job losses occurred, the national trend of job decentralization came to a standstill. During that period, the share of jobs located within three miles of a CBD in the 100 largest metro areas ticked up slightly, from 22.6% to 22.9%. This may seem counter-intuitive, but can be explained by the fact that suburban areas saw strong job growth in the early part of the decade followed by major losses during the recession, while downtowns were losing jobs at a relatively steady, slower pace throughout the decade.

According to the report, this was partly driven by the fact that the industries that were hardest hit during the recession – including manufacturing and construction – were among those that previously had migrated to the suburbs. The Milwaukee area did not mirror these national trends exactly, as downtown remained stable throughout the entire decade, the outer suburbs experienced a boom and a bust, and the areas in between – where most of the net job losses occurred – bled jobs at a relatively steady rate throughout the decade.

As metro Milwaukee continues to recover from the recession, it will be interesting to see whether the national, pre-recession trend of job decentralization will return here or whether other forces retaining and attracting businesses and workers to downtowns will continue. The distribution of jobs in the region has significant impacts on a number of other issues, including transportation, workforce development, and environmental and economic sustainability, and the decisions of area policymakers will play a role in guiding job growth during the recovery.

As Brookings puts it, “In the wake of the Great Recession, policymakers and regional leaders have the opportunity to make strategic decisions about how they will pursue metropolitan growth. If the next period of economic expansion reinforces low-density, diffuse growth in metropolitan America, it will be that much harder for metro areas to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth over the long term.”

Joe Peterangelo