This Great Lakes port city has reversed its downtown fortunes and is now growing again. Why can't Jacksonville?
Despite being in the shadow of an internationally known megacity, Milwaukee is quickly becoming a downtown revitalization success story for second tier cities like Jacksonville. Here's a look at how Milwaukee is turning its rust belt image around.
With a population of 1,569,659, Milwaukee's metropolitan area is the 39th largest in the country. The 40th is Jacksonville's at 1,394,624. Undoubtedly, when it comes to living in the shadows, the glitz and glamour in Florida will bring cities like Miami, Tampa, and Orlando to mind before Jax. In the same light, one could make a similar argument about Milwaukee, which happens to be located 82 miles north of Chicagoland's 9,522,434 residents.
Nevertheless, being significantly smaller than its neighbor to the south hasn't stopped Milwaukee from becoming a nationwide urban revitalization success story.
There are a lot of things you can say about Milwaukee. Typically, in a "learning from" article like this, I'd highlight something about one of the one-trick pony redevelopment gimmicks that Jacksonville's leaders tend to dream about. Aquariums, convention centers, retail center redevelopments, open space along the riverfront, public markets, attracting residents downtown, etc.
I'll save those story lines for another day. What really stands out about Milwaukee is that it has found a way to become a quality-of-life trend setter.
Historic Milwaukee River image courtesy of https://milwaukeenotebook.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/4a08076v.jpg
Incorporated in 1846, this Great Lakes port city quickly became nationally known as a brewing epicenter. There were 138 taverns, one for every 40 residents, in the city as early as 1843 and more than two dozen breweries by 1856.
During its heyday, the city was the top beer producing city in the world and home to four of the worlds largest breweries (Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst and Miller). The city's breweries even served as the backdrop for ABC sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley during the 1970s and 1980s.
Unfortunately, Milwaukee fell on hard times in the 1980s as tens of thousands of jobs were lost as several of its major breweries and industries closed.
Like most rust belt cities, Milwaukee found itself in an economic free fall, losing 144,350 residents between 1960 and 2000.
Typically, this is where one introduces their redevelopment gimmick of the month. Nevermind that Nashville has a music scene to die for, they invested in a convention center a millions of tourist found their way to downtown. So we should do it too! Chattanooga built an aquarium and it turned that downtown around. Nevermind that the aquarium was a part of a coordinated larger redevelopment plan, let's build a big fish tank and everything will be okay. New York has a Macy's. Let's overlook that it also has 8.4 million and get Macy's to open in the Jacksonville Landing!
These aren't the storylines that define what Milwaukee has become. Yes, there is a successful convention center in downtown Milwaukee. There's also an science center featuring an aquarium and an art museum nearby on the city's waterfront. However, one can argue that Milwaukee has become a trendsetter in urban planning and redevelopment.
This dates as far back as the 1960s when community opposition saved the city from losing its public access and waterfront to a freeway. The acts of being a trendsetter have continued in the 21st century.
For example, in 2002 the city made national news for demolishing the Park Freeway and replacing it with a ground level boulevard and re-connected street grid, opening up 60 acres for infill development. When the time comes to ponder what to do with Jacksonville's Hart Bridge Expressway ramps, Jaxsons should consider doing the same.
In 2003, Milwaukee became one of the first cities in the country to provide wireless internet access in public spaces. Now the city is home to FreedomPop, the nation's first 100% FREE high speed wireless internet service provider.
Featuring over 65 miles of bicycle lanes and trails, the city obtained bronze-level status from the League of American Bicyclist in 2006 as a part of its efforts to become a bicycle friendly community.
An additional 250 miles of streets have been identified where bicycle lanes can be incrementally added over time. Despite achieving such success, investment in bicycle infrastructure has continued with the August 2014 implementation of a 10 station starter bike share system.
And what do you do when you live in the shadow of a larger city? Instead of making excuses for yourself, consider it an asset and invest in your local transportation network, which enhances regional connectivity and economic opportunities.
In downtown Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Intermodal Station and a new streetcar line under construction are examples of this. Renovated in 2007, the Milwaukee Intermodal Station is served by Greyhound bus and Amtrak passenger rail service. Amtrak's Hiawatha is an 86-mile passenger rail service providing 14 daily trains between downtown Milwaukee, General Mitchell International Airport and Chicago's Loop.
In mid-2018, a $64.6 million modern streetcar line will open, connecting the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, downtown and adjacent pedestrian friendly neighborhoods.
The list above is just a small sample of what has helped turn Milwaukee's image around. In 2006, the city was recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of a "Dozen Distinctive Destinations".
While Milwaukee's turn around is partially due to its efforts to preserve and promote its local history and heritage, becoming an trend setter when it comes to investing in quality-of-life improvements should not be overlooked.
Economically, these trendsetting moves have combined with others to stop the city's decline. After four decades of major population loss, decline decreased to 2,141 residents between 2000 and 2010. Now the city is growing for the first time in five decades, adding 4,331 residents between 2010 and 2013.
For a similar sized community like Jacksonville, the lesson Milwaukee's comeback experience provides should be fairly easy to see. First figure out what the community ultimately desires to become and start incrementally implementing that vision by putting your money and investments where your mouth is.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Photographs by Robert W. Mann. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Robert at email@example.com
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