Milwaukee has faced hard times since the industries that long-defined this Midwest city – brewing, tanning and meatpacking – mostly shut down in the 1970s and 1980s. In the last few decades, the city's middle class has shrunk by more than a third.
The tough times have gotten tougher of late. Though violent crime has fallen in recent years, the city is deep in debt and minority unemployment is at a near-record high.* But now a potential magic bullet has emerged, with help from Richard Meeusen, CEO of century-old water meter firm Badger Meter.
Meeusen plans to remake the city as a global hub for water technology and research.
It all started five years ago. "I had an ah-ha moment while at A.O. Smith for a meeting," Meeusen recalls. "I realized how similar their flow lab was to ours, and thought of the similarities in our business. They make water heaters; we make water meters. After that I started thinking about all the companies in the area that are in water technology – there are about 150, making pumps and valves and meters and the like – and I thought we could bring them together and be more successful as a collective hub."
He founded the Milwaukee Water Council and launched an annual water summit. A couple years later, the United Nations named Milwaukee a "Global Compact City" with a focus on water. Last year, with $50 million in state backing, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee opened the country's first-ever School of Freshwater Studies and Marquette University added a water law program.
The federal government has given the water council and its partners $4 million in grants for job creation and water research. Veolia Water, the world's biggest water technology company, chose Milwaukee as one of six cities to help develop a set of universal water practices for an age of scarcity, and IBM awarded Milwaukee a Smarter Cities grant to fund an innovative aquaculture model.
Representatives from Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas all visited Meeusen in the past year to understand how Milwaukee has successfully embraced the water hub idea so quickly. "The answer is simple," he told them, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's not government-driven."
Now the city is buying in. City officials are planning to turn a defunct rail yard into an incubator for water-related companies, called the Reed Street Yards. Unlike your average incubator, which hosts only start-ups, this project will foster new companies alongside established businesses and academic research.
More than 75 percent of the space has already been reserved, according to Meeusen, including a sizable chunk for UW-M's freshwater science school.
Mayor Tom Barrett and other city officials hope the project can create thousands of jobs. Milwaukee could sure use them, particularly the un-skilled jobs lost with the departure of manufacturing. Unemployment is nearly 30 percent among the city's African-Americans; more than 50 percent among African-American men.
"It's not my job to create employment opportunities for high school dropouts, that should be solved by government and the community," Meeusen says, adding that he hopes to create thousands of jobs – including some for tech school graduates – and lift industry revenue from $6 billion to $10 billion. "But I don't see us creating a huge number of unskilled jobs."
Can Milwaukee's strategy succeed? Relying so heavily on a single industry means that if and when that industry fails, the city is hit hard. Look at Detroit with cars, Akron with tires, and Sheboygan, Wis., with toilets. But Meeusen points out that Milwaukee has sizable printing and energy sectors, and builds a good deal of mining equipment.
What's more, water is a $450 billion market worldwide. Seems like a basket big enough for more than a few eggs.
*Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that violent crime is on the rise.