By Bob Bach
February 13, 2012
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Milwaukee's Menomonee River Valley has landed a host of new and relocated companies in the last ten years. Local officials are optimistic job growth, as well as environmental and residential improvements in the area will keep going strong.
Since 2001, when Miller Park opened to the west, more than 30 companies have planted roots along the four-mile stretch. Laura Bray, of the group Menomonee Valley Partners, credits the combined strength of community organizations and government.
"All these partners got together and put together a redevelopment plan with the goal of providing more jobs for people who live in the surrounding neighborhood and also using it as a way to improve the Menomonee River and the environmental quality the valley. It’s really an integrated plan that looks at economic development, ecological improvement, and also community assets that are important to the broader Milwaukee community," Bray says.
Industrial expansion in the valley has netted 47-hundred jobs, and the community assets Bray mentioned include newly created “green fields”. They capture and filter storm water, protecting the river from pollutants. Bridges and walkways have been built or are planned. Those passageways provide new access to longtime valley industries such as Falk as well as newcomers like Ingeteam. The Spanish manufacturer makes wind energy and electrical components.
CEO Aitor Sotes says the firm picked Milwaukee from a list of 80 sites, as the home for its first American factory.
"Milwaukee officials came and told us the story about the Menomonee Valley, of taking a place that is brown and making it green. We wanted to be part of that. Our company works toward a manufacturing approach with a new energy model based on the use of renewable energy sources and sustainability as well," Sotes says.
Sotes says Ingeteam also chose the valley because of the nearby labor pool and the know-how Milwaukee gained when it was a leading manufacturer of electric motors. About 275 people will work at the plant once it’s fully operational later this year.
About a mile away, you’ll find some of the oldest structures in the valley. A handful of 100-year-old buildings comprise the campus of the former Milwaukee Gas Works. At one time, its factories converted coal into combustible vapor that illuminated street lamps in the city. Today, natural light pours through huge windows, flooding workspaces in what is now Zimmerman Architectural Studios, a transplant from Wauwatosa.
Milwaukee City Development Commissioner Rockey Marcoux marvels at the meticulously restored structure that features a 60 foot high roof anchored to an iron and brick skeleton.
"The only word that comes to mind when I come in here is cathedral. It is one of the finest examples of adaptive reuse, not only in Milwaukee, but probably in the United States. If you are one of the very creative folks that work for Zimmerman Design and Harwood Engineering and some of the other companies that they have here, you’ve got to be inspired coming to work, it’s a beautiful, beautiful space," Marcoux says.
Yet Marcoux says Zimmerman’s presence represents more than a sparkling change to the skyline. He says the firm’s roster of white-collar professionals extends the valley’s “ladder” of opportunity.
"You can actually start at entry level, rise within a company, you could yourself some training on the side while you’re working, maybe at MATC, perhaps UWM or Marquette, and gain credentialing and experience and go on to other opportunities in the valley without having to leave where you live," Marcoux says.
A lot of folks that work in the valley actually live in the neighborhoods surrounding the valley. New residential construction - including townhouses and apartments - is taking shape on the north and south side bluffs. It all adds up to a stunning success, according to Laura Bray of Menomonee Valley Partners. She says that story is not yet finished.
"We actually are trying to fight the perception that the valley is done," Bray says.
Bray says there are at least 100 acres open for development, with perhaps more employment and commerce to follow in one of Milwaukee’s most historic enclaves.