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Rust Belt to Fresh Coast: Milwaukee's doing it

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/08/12 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Clean energy, Transform, Land

Milwaukee is a shining example of how to turn the industrial tide in the Midwest from black to green. The city “decided to double down on advanced manufacturing” in the 1990s, says Matt Howard, Milwaukee’s environmental sustainability director. It got in the business of small to midsized manufacturers—their bread-and-butter sectors of value-added food products (cheese) and water related industries (beer)—helping them reduce costs by eliminating waste. That focus on lean manufacturing gave the city confidence to embark on their Menomonee River Valley “green manufacturing” district.

Rust to Green<br />Milwaukee's Menomonee green industrial park

Today, Menomonee is recognized as the leading example in the country for a district that sets standards for green building, was one of the first places to build a 20-acre park and wetland in the middle of the industrial district to capture and treat all stormwater from the buildings on site plus amenities like a canoe launch and soccer fields.

It’s a beautiful vision that works by integrating what Howard calls a live-work-play district (amazing that the work being done there is manufacturing, again.) The before and after photos are jaw dropping.

How did they do it, and what lessons can they share with Rust Belt cities like Cleveland which has a beginning vision for the same idea in the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative?

Sustainability began to take on more than buzz word status there in the 1990s due to the leadership of Mayor John Nordquist who would go on to found Congress for New Urbanism after he left office.

Around the former rail yards of the Menomonee, the city set up a special improvement district and the companies—a pretty special group, indeed—agreed to tax themselves to pay for the upkeep of the green features like the water cleansing wetland and native plants. They agreed to a set of design guidelines for all of their buildings that insist on high efficiency lighting and daylighting.

The city targeted small to mid sized, independent and water-based manufacturers who could buy in to the vision. premised on offering high tech manufacturers a clean environment. Nine companies have (retaining 1,200 jobs) including J.F. Ahern, Palermo Pizza (a local, family run business who grew from 150 to 400 workers), Sprouted Bake House, Charter Wire, Caleffi Hydronics (from Italy) and Ingeteam, a Spanish wind turbine parts manufacturer who found this site from a search of 80 sites across the U.S. for its 275 employees. Howard says the firm picked Milwaukee because of its forward stance on clean tech and because it retained industrial knowledge coded in its DNA. All of the companies cite the extension of their brand that the eco-industrial park provides.

“The companies told us they used to be embarrassed about their dirty old factories. Now they get lots of recognition for being here.”

This green industrial park didn’t come without its challenges—foremost, land contaminated with decades of oil from the rail operation. The city had help from state leaders who agreed to a plan to cap the brownfield (they used 700,000 tons of fill dirt from a highway interchange project to cover 100 acres). They built the wetland /green infrastructure on ‘spec’ meaning they put it in place before knowing if the concept would fly.

Was it a gamble or was it seeing an emerging trend and acting on it early?

David Misky the associate director of the city’s Redevelopment Authority expects the massive government investment to provide a good return on investment.

“The $20-30 million investment in Menomonee Valley—the clean up on the tax payer dollar is sound because a dollar invested in clean tech today saves more than that in future clean up. We still want manufacturing in the city but we want it to look different feel different and act different.”

“This is what cities can become," he adds, "what Rust can become. We like the fact that we’re manufacturing intensive. Embrace your strengths, just do it in a new way.”

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Marc Lefkowitz
5 years ago

What lessons can Cleveland take from Milwaukee?

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