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Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009

Promoting a Smarter Economic Development Strategy

Citizen Action joins forces with Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods

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Bad economic news is old news in Milwaukee, where we’ve struggled with a declining manufacturing sector, expanding racial and economic gaps, underfunded transit, job flight to the suburbs and city planners that too often rubber stamp new developments by arguing that they will build the property tax base, even if they don’t lead to family-supporting jobs for the taxpayers that help to finance the developments.

But the public interest group Citizen Action of Wisconsin and the grassroots organization Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods have decided to join forces to help change directions perceptions of economic development—and the government’s role in fostering a vibrant local economy.

Rejecting the tired argument that any job is a good job, when everyone knows that a minimum wage job with no benefits can barely support an individual, let alone a family, the merged organization will work toward building a more just and fair economic development strategy in the city.

“We’re looking at all of the money we’re already spending on economic development so that we can figure out how it will actually create community benefits—jobs for people who really need them, affordable housing, transportation, employment for people in the city, and creating jobs with career ladders,” said Robert Kraig, program director for Citizen Action.

Kraig said that Citizen Action’s resources will allow the Milwaukee-based Good Jobs organization to expand its reach statewide, while Good Jobs’ economic program can complement Citizen Action’s work on health care.

The Good Jobs coalition successfully championed two pieces of landmark legislation that are used as national models. In 2004, the Milwaukee County Board passed the Park East Redevelopment Compact (PERC), which added sustainable community benefits requirements to the development of the 16 acres of the county-owned Park East parcel. Earlier this year, the city enacted the Milwaukee Opportunities for Restoring Employment (MORE) ordinance, which requires private developers that receive $1 million or more of direct assistance from the city to hire locally and from emerging or disadvantaged businesses.

Kraig said these requirements are part of a broader strategic economic development vision that can revitalize Milwaukee’s stagnant economy and promote balanced growth across neighborhoods.

“We’ve been creating these poverty pockets in Wisconsin, especially in Milwaukee, and we don’t seem to have a concerted strategy to deal with it,” Kraig said. “We’re certainly not making sure that all public investments focus on it to some degree. There really needs to be a change in philosophy.”

Pam Fendt, director of the Good Jobs coalition, said that city and business leaders’ sole focus on increasing the property tax base left out other factors that create a healthy local economy. “You can build a lot of buildings, but if that doesn’t change employment prospects for the people who live here, then what have you accomplished?” she said.

Fendt said the organization will examine how American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds can be spent locally so they are invested for the long-term benefit of the community.

“We’re concerned about the labor standards issue and making sure that good jobs are created with the expenditure of federal resources,” Fendt said. “We’re examining how to take onetime money and parlay that into long-term career opportunities for disadvantaged residents, not just flash-in-the-pan jobs that dry up once the money is gone.”

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