Public Policy Forum Blog

Learning from the Menomonee Valley’s Redevelopment Success

The revitalization of Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley as an industrial, recreational, and entertainment district has been lauded both locally and nationally as a successful and sustainable urban redevelopment project. While work in the Valley is not finished, a new Forum report released this morning explores how the Valley’s major improvements over the last 15 years have been achieved, including an examination of the public policies, financial resources, and partnerships that were crucial to the redevelopment effort.

The report finds that several strategies utilized in the Valley could be adapted and applied to other large-scale redevelopment efforts in Milwaukee. Those include robust and widely inclusive planning and design activities, strong intergovernmental and public-private partnerships, and the assumption of financial risk by public sector entities to assemble and make properties “shovel ready.”

We urge public and private sector economic development leaders to consider the following lessons from the Valley’s revival as they pursue redevelopment in other priority areas in the region: 

Major redevelopment initiatives need to be accompanied by a robust set of planning and design activities that establish both a common vision for the initiative and a detailed roadmap to achieve that vision.  The Valley’s extensive planning and visioning process engaged stakeholders, local design professionals, and the larger community to an unusually high degree. The plans and policies subsequently established were specific in nature, with tangible actions and guidelines that addressed key redevelopment barriers and emphasized economic, environmental, and social equity goals simultaneously.

Strong intergovernmental cooperation and public-private partnerships will be essential for large-scale redevelopment efforts to succeed.  The process of redeveloping the Valley has been exceptionally collaborative, with intergovernmental and public-private partnerships essential to most major Valley projects and to the success of the effort as a whole. Moreover, the Valley’s story illustrates that rather than being led only by city government, major redevelopment efforts may stand the best chance for success if they are collaboratively led by multiple public and private sector stakeholders.

Funding must be pursued and creatively assembled from numerous sources to address the many barriers that impede brownfield redevelopment projects. The City’s willingness to invest heavily in infrastructure, environmental cleanup, and other pre-development work through tax increment financing and other financial contributions, as well as aggressive pursuit of funding from numerous state, federal, and private sources, were critical to the Valley’s redevelopment.

Given the key advantages involved with public or public-private ownership of re-developable brownfield properties, the City likely will need to assume considerable financial risk to advance major redevelopment projects.  The success of several major Valley projects was attributed largely to the ability of the City or Menomonee Valley Partners – as property owners – to expeditiously and effectively assemble project funding and address cleanup and infrastructure issues to make sites “shovel ready.” Since it likely will be much more challenging to assemble, prepare, and market land in priority redevelopment areas that are privately owned, the City may need to continue to assume property ownership risk in other parts of the city to meet redevelopment goals.

Major redevelopment projects must be accompanied by aggressive marketing of the area’s existing strengths and amenities.  Leaders of the Menomonee Valley redevelopment effort capitalized on the unique strengths of the area, which were evident to them but required comprehensive visioning and effective public relations to convey to others. The Valley experience illustrates the need to take advantage of locational strengths in redevelopment work, which may include transportation infrastructure, existing industry clusters, available business resources, workforce proximity, and neighborhood amenities. 

Major redevelopment projects should be viewed as opportunities to address multiple community objectives.  One of the most striking components of the Valley’s recent revitalization is the varied range of improvements it has produced. The “triple bottom line” approach to sustainable development not only achieved several economic development objectives, but also enhanced the natural environment and generated quality-of-life amenities that benefit the broader community. In light of this success, City leaders should seek other opportunities to achieve multiple goals through individual redevelopment projects.

Using redevelopment projects to create jobs for neighborhood residents may require greater emphasis on workforce development. Valley redevelopment leaders emphasized the need to foster development that would provide employment opportunities for the local workforce. For future redevelopment efforts that share a similar goal, greater emphasis may need to be placed on workforce training of area residents and on specific recruitment of businesses that have a need for workers with the types of skill sets possessed by those residents.

We hope that this report can help guide current and future planning in the Valley and inform policy and practice for similar efforts in Milwaukee and beyond.

Joe Peterangelo