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We sat down for a long talk with DCD Commissioner Rocky Marcoux and still didn't get to many of our questions! (PHOTO: David Bernacchi)

Milwaukee Talks: DCD's Rocky Marcoux

Spend a little time with Milwaukee Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux, and it won't take long to realize he has an encyclopedic knowledge of this city. And he's a talker, eager to share that knowledge and his passion for Milwaukee.

We sat down with Marcoux just moments after President Donald Trump held his first press conference following his inauguration to talk about development in Downtown Milwaukee, projects in the neighborhoods and the symbiotic relationship between those.

Despite what some may think, Marcoux told me, "the overwhelming majority of the work that the department is engaged in is not in the Downtown. It is in the neighborhoods."

Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with DCD commish Rocky Marcoux.

OnMilwaukee: What are we looking at in terms of cities under a Donald Trump presidency?

Rocky Marcoux: I think there's a lot of concern with the change in administration as to what urban policy is going to be in this administration, and because there was so little discussion around policy during the election cycle, we're all left guessing where we're going to be. Significant amounts of federal money come to the cities ... The overwhelming majority of them have some tie-in to a city like Milwaukee.

We're very concerned that we've had no guidance whatsoever as to how those programs (such as public housing and Community Development Block Grants) are going to continue, whether they're going to continue, what form they're going to take. There's a lot of unknowns. There was a lot of discussion from both the candidates about the need for a major infrastructure investment, and that's something that seems to resonate in Congress. There doesn't seem to be anybody saying that we shouldn't be investing in infrastructure, and it's a great way to put people to work, and it's certainly something that the economy needs. The question now is what is that?

At the city level, has there been intense discussion since the election about this, or has it been more wait and see?

Yes, wait and see ... we'll find out more direction on where the president believes the country is going in terms of some of these programs. You don't know. In the case of so little detail other than "we're going to fix the central cities" ... He used some disparaging terminology, but what does that mean?

One man's fix is another man's ...

Yeah, exactly. I think we're concerned, and obviously this is where our Congressional delegation is going to have to, and will be, taking an active role, particularly Rep. (Gwen) Moore, representing the city. I know Sen. (Tammy) Baldwin, and the expectation with Sen. (Ron) Johnson and the balance of the delegation is to do the things that are right for Wisconsin, and ultimately its largest city. The mayor (recently) came out with an analysis of the fact that the city is a net contributor to the state's economy.

You beat me to the punch on that. How does this fit in with the news that we pay so much in income tax to the state of Wisconsin and we get so little back now in shared revenue?

The city has been, for many decades, the leader in Wisconsin in terms of economic activity. What the mayor did was to outline, in exact terms, what that means, how much money is coming from the city toward the state's revenue, and particularly the issue of shared revenue, which has been declining on an annual basis, and not just under this governor. It started before that, but it's been accelerated, and the dilemma we have is that's a source of income we have depended on traditionally, and a source of income that is being funded largely from the City of Milwaukee itself, its taxpayers, with income taxes, and sales taxes, and various other means from which the state derives some of its income.

I think too often the debate has been put in the context, "Well, here's what Madison is doing for us." I think what the mayor's trying to say is, "Well, here's what we're doing for Madison and the rest of the state."

I think that has long been the perception, that people outside of Milwaukee have thought about the programs in Milwaukee they have been funding, when really it looks a lot like it's the reverse.

We are the economic center, certainly of the city itself and the immediate Milwaukee County, but also the seven counties of southeastern Wisconsin. There's a tremendous amount of total volume of goods and services generated in the state that come through this area. Either they're made here, or they're processed here, or somehow change hands here. Obviously we have great wealth of jobs throughout the state.

I think for us it's getting the rest of the state to understand we're in this together. The Wisconsin idea is we've always been about being in this together. We've always had this dichotomy, if you will, of a rural economy as well as a urban economy, but it always blended well. We've had the best of both worlds, and we still can do that, but I think we have to have a more thoughtful analysis of where those funds are going to be spent to have the maximum impact on the state. A dollar spent here is generally going to return more than a dollar to the state, and I think that's what the mayor was getting at.

It's a good point, and hopefully folks will take a look at that and not just pan it and say, "Oh, that's Tom Barrett, and it's Milwaukee," and really say, "Hey, this is a thoughtful analysis. It bears reading it and trying to understand."

I think the rural/urban divide is really part of that bigger divide we saw during the election, where you have this polarization politically and people don't really want to understand each other or talk to each other.

It's because we've been talking at each other recently. They are very much dependent on the news media and how it reports what goes on in our city, as well as what is said on the floor of legislative sessions, what is said in opinion pieces that come out of legislative sessions and have obviously a large influence on the way people think about Milwaukee.

You're in an elevator with all those people outside Milwaukee. What's your elevator speech to them about what's going on in Milwaukee today?

You can't do it in an elevator speech, but what I would say would be, "Give me three hours, let's get in a bus, and let's go for a tour," and I would take them through all parts of our city. Certainly the vibrancy of what's happening Downtown, but the bigger story that is not told well – I think you do a good job of it, a very good job of it, OnMilwaukee – is the neighborhoods. There's such vibrancy and resiliency in our neighborhoods. That is not the story that gets out.

Yes, there are challenges. I'd like to show the challenges also in the context of the resiliency and the successes that are out there. That's the problem. Too many people have tried to put it into an elevator speech, on either side. Then you just talk at each other. The best way for people to understand is to actually experience it.

To come and see it.

To come and see it. I do this actually quite frequently; I bring people around. I do it with the news media, I do it with folks that are looking to invest in our city and I have done it with some legislators. I would hope and pray that many more would come, because I'm not selling ideology. I'm simply saying, "Here's what we're doing, and here are the challenges, and here's how we think we can move past that, and here's how we are helping ourselves."

We are investing millions and millions of dollars every single year in this city to attack some of these very incredibly challenging issues we have, but also to get folks to understand, too. Look at mental health issues as just one piece. It isn't about somebody's program; it's about what they're living and what they're not getting for what they're supposed to be getting.
The mayor came out one night, and Scott Walker was the county exec at the time.

They joined hands and said, "We're going to do something about this. Our commitment is to try and do over 1,100 units of affordable housing over a period of time." Now, we're just about over 500. We continue to work at that. The mayor, the city, we've had a real strong commitment to it. Our hope is that would be spread across Milwaukee County. To date, I think we have one development that's outside the City of Milwaukee, but therein lies a lot of the difficulty.

If you look at a lot of the folks that find themselves in these situations, they weren't all from Milwaukee. They're from many other places. Oftentimes, what happens with folks with mental illness is the family eventually gives up. Not because they're bad people, it's just that there's a level of frustration ...

They've reached the end of what they can do.

Exactly. Where do those folks end up? They end up in cities. It's not unique to Milwaukee, and it's not unique to Milwaukee as being the largest city in the state, it's just that's what happens to cities throughout the United States. Why? Because there are people here, agencies here, that are designed to help and care for them.

It becomes self-fulfilling, because if you have the agencies, you get people, and once you have more people, you have more agencies.

Exactly correct, and yet a lot of these efforts are being supported through the City, directly or indirectly. We are carrying a responsibility that has a financial commitment attached to it for folks that didn't start as our citizens, but now are our citizens, and we can't look the other way, and we won't. This mayor has not done that.

Obviously you look at the indicators on public health, there's a lot more that we have to do. Teenage pregnancy, the mayor made that a priority in terms of reducing teenage pregnancy, and we've had a dramatic reduction in that.

These are programs that the health department has put in, but working in collaboration. That's the word. Collaboration, with people who do this every day. The agencies, the community partners, the philanthropic folks, the United Way. You have to have everybody, and that's part of the message if I had folks on a tour is, "Here's how all this interacts."

Forget the headlines. Forget the budget for a minute. Here's where the money is being spent, how it's being spent, who's being helped, and what are the salutary impacts of that on not only the health of the city, but ultimately the health of the economy. Because if we can't recognize every individual's ability to contribute to the economy, and maximize that, we're losing a huge resource. Our human capital is our strength. That's our biggest resource is our human capital. We have many challenges in terms of developing that human capital right now.

I want to talk about neighborhoods and city-owned properties. Let's talk about Downtown first. There's a sense to a lot people that there's two Milwaukees: this development Downtown, and then the neighborhoods, some of which are thriving, some of which are struggling. But there's no way you look at Downtown and think of anything but it's booming.

Billions of dollars being invested.

What's getting us here right now? What's fueling what's going on?

It's a combination of factors. First of all, since the downturn, we've had a very healthy economy in terms of interest rates, or lack thereof. Obviously that's not going to last forever. It's interesting. We went into the downturn no different than the entire country, the entire world, and that's something editorially that the Obama administration is not given enough credit for, saving the economy. Not just our economy, but globally. The United States economy goes down the tubes, well, everything else does too.

So many cities had the same challenges. Not every city has recovered as Milwaukee has. I think that's what's lost on some folks who will say, "Well, this is happening in cities all over the United States." People are moving back to cities. That is unquestionably true, but not every city is sharing in the same renaissance that we have. Cleveland has had struggles.

The amount of vacant land in Milwaukee when we did this report in 2014 was 1.8%. Now, subsequently with the foreclosures and the amount of vacancies that have been produced by some of the demolition, we have grown to, I think, about 2.1%, but that's accounting for pretty much the worst of the downturn, because it takes a long time. The crash was in 2008-09, but it takes a long time to get to the bottom.

Everybody says, "Well, you've got to be like Detroit, OK?" I take issue because Detroit's a great American city, and it's a great American tragedy what's happened in that city. If you look at it, Detroit in 2014, 17.3% of their land mass was vacant. St. Louis, 20% of its land mass, vacant.

Chicago, 5% of its land mass. Buffalo, 10%. Baltimore, more akin to where we were, about 1.9 to 1.8. Minneapolis holding its own. Cleveland, 6%. These are big, big numbers, and I think there's another one here in population. Milwaukee, at the height of its population would have been the 1960 census. I think it was about 741,000, so 740,000 and change. We just went over 600,000, which I didn't see reported in too many places, OK?

It's not, "Good for you guys, you went over 600,000," but psychologically, that's a big piece.

So the difference between Milwaukee's height of population at 741,000, and 600,000 current, it's not a huge swing compared to other cities. Look at Detroit. Detroit, I think 1.8, 1.9 million. They probably hit that either in 1950 or '60, but it might have been '60.

The car industry's still booming at that point.

Oh, absolutely, and the great migration was playing out, but the point is they're at, what, (700,000) and change right now, from 1.8, 1.9? Everybody talks about Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh has reinvented itself. It's a great city.

There's pictures of Pittsburgh in the 1940s and 1950s where they had the street lights on during the day because you just couldn't see in the smog. Pittsburgh launched very much ahead of its time in the '70s and '80s because the industrialization of that portion of the country hit there first with the steel mills, primarily but not exclusively. And they came up with the Monongahela Plan, which has been touted as a great success story, which it is, but what people don't talk about is Pittsburgh's half the population ... there's only 300,000 people in Pittsburgh right now. It was 600,000 at its height. Most of the land that was recaptured in the Mon Plan was put to uses other than manufacturing. A lot of it went to retail, some of it went to open spaces, some of it went to office and residential.

It feels like a bigger city than that.

It does, because it's a very compact city, and it's Downtown, so you see most of the buildings are clustered at the river's edge and just next to it, and you have this effect. You're surrounded by neighborhoods that are part of the city that are at an incline.

You feel enclosed.

The visual impact is exactly that, that the space is much smaller. Here, you can see and see and see.

Chicago, interestingly enough, if you look at the 2000 census compared to the 2010 decennial census, they lost 200,000 people in the city. Now, the reason that I say we're over 600,000, the community surveys are the annual Census Bureau's updates, if you will. They use a similar statistical analysis, but they're not as data rich, so they're not as accurate.

They're a little bit more theoretical.

Yes, they're based on trending, but they're based on some of the sound principles that go into the decennial census. The reason they're important is because they're also used for the disposition of federal funds. That's why there has to be an annualized report on these. In the community survey reports on Chicago, they've recovered about 20,000, so they're still down about 180,000. Most of those folks stayed in the region, so they migrated out of the city.

You have this metro population that is no longer city population, though.

Yeah. Chicago is a huge advantage for Milwaukee, and this includes Downtown Milwaukee and its neighborhoods, because of our proximity. We're only 90 miles away. This has been a big selling point for us, particularly with international companies as we look for direct foreign investment in the United States. Ingeteam is a great example of that in the Menomonee Valley.

Companies that we're trying to attract from the EU in particular ... We're not stealing companies from Europe when we go over there and have these meetings. They're trying to expand. The EU is saturated, particularly with wind and solar, because they had a much more forward-thinking program that was EU-wide.

The growth is here. They pretty much saturated those marketplaces. With the exception of maybe some of the offshore wind turbines they're experimenting with in the Netherlands, they're isn't a great potential for wind and solar in the EU because they've got so much of it there already. They were looking to expand. They had really two places that they could go for major expansion. One would be China, the other would be the United States. Given the issues with intellectual property rights, when you have joint ventures in China, generally it turns into Chinese companies in five years that all of a sudden have your technology.

(They) came here. They're outside of Bilbao. There are probably five to six round trips a day to Madrid out of O'Hare. If we're trying to go with a German company, you can get to Frankfurt, you can get to Berlin, you can get to any of the industrial areas of Germany with multiple round trips per day, and that's true for the whole EU. The fact that we are only 90 miles away from O'Hare is huge. It's an hour and 15 minutes, and we're on the right side of Chicago. If we were in Northern Indiana, it's a crap shoot getting to O'Hare, as you know on any given day based on traffic.

That's a competitive advantage. You talk about the amenities for Downtown, and that's one of the drivers, too. The Downtown amenities, the lake itself. A Minneapolis/St. Paul does not have a Lake Michigan. They have a Mississippi River, but that is not Lake Michigan.

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