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Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009

The Hollow Rhetoric of Regionalism

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Many Milwaukeeans are justifiably paranoid whenever they hear talk about regional economic development. That comes from years of watching corporate leaders move jobs out of the city into surrounding counties.

Now the co-chairman of the Milwaukee 7, an organization allegedly formed to promote economic development within seven southeastern Wisconsin counties, including Milwaukee, is publicly opposing any preference in the city for hiring its own citizens hardest hit by unemployment.

Gale Klappa, chairman of We Energies and co-chairman of the Milwaukee 7, attacked the city’s modest 5% bidding preference for contractors located in Milwaukee as an “anti-regional attitude.”

Well, since when isn’t the city of Milwaukee part of the region?

The argument demonstrates the indifference of many area leaders to one of the most visible reminders to city residents about how little people in power really care about those suffering the worst economic devastation in the region.

When work finally does come to Milwaukee, through major construction projects or even street repairs right in their own neighborhoods, Milwaukeeans of color—African Americans, Latinos and others—rarely see anyone working on those jobs who looks like them. That continues to be true even when city, county and state officials assure everyone that contracting requirements intended to promote minority and gender fairness in hiring are not only being met, but exceeded.

Obviously, there’s a big difference between what a company’s work force looks like on paper and what it looks like on the job. That’s why Milwaukee Alderman Ashanti Hamilton wrote legislation adding a local preference, in which the city favors Milwaukee-based contractors whose bids are within 5% of the lowest bid.

The requirement has affected only two city contracts since taking effect in August, but losing bidders from outside the city sued, challenging the selection of a city-based construction company.

Milwaukee Needs Jobs

This issue becomes even more important as the city begins receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal economic stimulus funds to create more jobs here.

Milwaukee has applied for nearly half a billion dollars in economic stimulus. So far, it’s been awarded $96.6 million. Decisions are still pending on applications for nearly $300 million.

The awarding of federal stimulus dollars is based on need. It may be one of the few times Milwaukee actually benefits from an appalling unemployment rate of nearly 50% among African-American males, the fifth worst among the nation’s 35 largest metropolitan areas, according to the UW-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development.

That would make it particularly ironic if those hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money then went to construction companies located outside of Milwaukee instead of being used to hire city residents who are most in need.

Klappa’s charge that any city preference for hiring Milwaukeeans is “anti-regional” could perhaps best be described as anti-rational.

Golly, wouldn’t you think the co-chairman of an organization that claims its mission is to create jobs in the region would welcome the creation of as many jobs as possible where unemployment is highest in the region?

“It seems any type of legislation or policy objective that benefits the city of Milwaukee…somehow gets deemed anti-regional,” Alderman Hamilton said. “As a region, for us not to focus on those (with the greatest unemployment) is a detriment to the region.”

A co-chair of Klappa’s Milwaukee 7—which includes Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, Walworth, Racine and Kenosha counties—is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. With partners like that, Barrett doesn’t need enemies.

The creation of the Milwaukee 7 was hailed at the time as some kind of regional breakthrough. For once, outlying counties that had built themselves up economically by luring companies from Milwaukee were going to be working with the city to create more employment for the entire region.

That would be pretty radical if it were true. But now all the hollow rhetoric of regionalism has been exposed. Regional cooperation on economic development seems to mean Milwaukee is supposed to do all the cooperating and outlying counties are supposed to get all the jobs. Jobs in Milwaukee are anti-regional.

If other counties in the region were really serious about regional economic development, they would favor increasing employment in Milwaukee to turn the state’s largest city into a powerful economic engine driving the entire region.

Instead, regional leaders are demonstrating the same small-minded provincialism they did when they moved companies to remote areas away from the city and then proceeded to fight the development of regional public transportation that would give city residents any access to those jobs.

Some of those companies even began recruiting workers from Eastern Europe instead of hiring Milwaukee’s unemployed just a few miles away in eastern Wisconsin.

Talk of regional development can’t be taken seriously until area leaders start taking concrete steps to improve transportation, education and employment for those hardest hit economically in their region.