Public Policy Forum Blog

Program at a crossroads

Since its establishment in 2005, the Main Street Milwaukee (MSM) Program has been a highly touted economic development program designed to promote economic growth and revitalization in six selected city neighborhoods. MSM - a partnership between the City of Milwaukee Department of City Development (DCD) and the local chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) - is a key component in the city’s overall economic and community development strategy.

In light of the program’s important role in city development, the Forum’s 2009-2010 Norman N. Gill fellow, Sandra Zupan, took a look at the MSM and its outcomes. Her report, Main Street Milwaukee: Program at a Crossroads, explores the program's public and private investment, financial sustainability, expenditures, outcomes, and governance.

The report’s key findings include:

  • The total investment in the MSM program between 2005 and 2009 was $3.3 million. Although the goal was for public and private investments in the MSM Program to be equal, the public portion accounted for 64% of the overall investment, while the private portion accounted for 36%.
  • While the MSM neighborhoods were originally planned to be financially self-sufficient within six years, none of the districts will meet this goal and in fact, public investment continues to be crucial for sustaining the program.
  • As a result of the program, more cohesiveness and stronger working relationships have been created among stakeholders within the neighborhoods.
  • When compared to the program's estimated outcomes over its first five years, the total private investment in exterior building improvements exceeded estimates by a considerable amount. However, the number of businesses created in the neighborhoods is 86% of the original estimate, while 57% of the estimated jobs have been created.

The MSM Partners Board, made up of public and private officials, recently initiated an effort to consider substantial restructuring of the MSM program. As they move forward, the report urges them to consider the following issues:

  1. The MSM program goals need clarity, and may need to be revamped in order to be more suitable for Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods;
  2. The mismatch between the intended goals of the program and the purpose of the program’s main funding source likely has contributed significantly to the program’s failure to meet initial estimates, and needs reconciliation;
  3. The program structure is overly complex and coordination among the neighborhoods and partners is poor;
  4. Transparency and accountability for achievement of outcomes is lacking;
  5. Resources need more leverage, and the program's branding, marketing, and visibility are insufficient; and
  6. More volunteers are necessary for the program to be viable.

Finally, the report points out that city officials, LISC, and the MSM Partners Board may wish to research further whether there is a tangible connection between economic development improvements in Main Street neighborhoods and the program itself. In addition, the overall question of how the city's economic and community development strategy relates to its anti-poverty strategy is ripe for future research and analysis.

For the full report, please visit the Forum's website.

Special thanks to the Gill family for their generous support of this project through the Norman N. Gill Fellowship.

Anneliese Dickman