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UW-Milwaukee - Center for Economic Development

Policy Research Report Abstract

The Economic State of Milwaukee's Inner City: 2006

Executive Summary

The latest statistics on income, employment, and business development offer mixed news on the economic health of Milwaukee's inner city. The good news: after decades of decline, economic conditions in the inner city have stabilized. Since 1999, real income and the number of business establishments have risen slightly in the inner city, and the number of jobs in inner city neighborhoods has fallen by less than one percent since 1994.

However, the bad news is that although inner city economic conditions have improved recently, the gains have been slight compared to the losses of the 1990s, leaving the inner city in worse shape today than a decade ago. Income per taxpayer in the inner city remains less than half the level of metro Milwaukee as a whole. In addition, there has been no net job growth in the inner city since 1994, limiting economic opportunity for residents. Slow employment growth throughout the region since 1999 has further damaged job prospects for inner city dwellers.

Two other notable trends emerge from the latest data. First, inner city economic improvements have been limited to a few neighborhoods, chiefly those ringing downtown, where substantial gentrification has occurred. Other neighborhoods in the inner city continue to experience falling incomes and a shrinking employment base.

Second, portions of the city's Northwest Side have witnessed significant economic decline since 1994, looking more and more like an embryonic "second" inner city in Milwaukee. Decline on the Northwest Side suggests that Milwaukee is experiencing a territorial "rearrangement" of economic distress, with some inner city neighborhoods showing gains, others still declining, and still other neighborhoods on the Northwest Side falling into deep economic difficulty. But the overall result is no net improvement in neighborhood economic conditions -- hence, the precipitous rise in the city's poverty rate since 2000.

Milwaukee has been awash in inner city initiatives since the early 1990s, but the impact of these efforts has been modest, at best. In particular, this report critiques the "Initiative for a Competitive Milwaukee" which, three years after its launch, has done nothing to advance economic development in the inner city. Civic leaders have also begun to promote "regional cooperation" in economic development, and this report examines the potential contribution of regional policies to inner city economic renewal. Finally, we explore eight policy implications of the latest data on inner city economic conditions. These include:

  • Milwaukee needs a comprehensive inner city redevelopment and anti-poverty strategy;
  • Metro Milwaukee should embrace regional equity strategies;
  • Corporate Milwaukee needs to step up to the plate for the inner city;
  • The City of Milwaukee should rethink some of its economic development strategies, particularly investments in tourism;
  • Restructuring the Milwaukee Department of City Development will be essential to implementing an inner city revitalization strategy;
  • Gentrification is not a dirty word;
  • A community benefits agreement should be part of every major redevelopment deal in Milwaukee;
  • Milwaukee needs a "big bang" to stimulate inner city revitalization.

To read the Full Report