Water can make this region attractive for further economic development. Local officials should make use of those advantages.
Posted: Nov. 5, 2009
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is touting an idea that could help economic development in the region by being smarter about attracting businesses. Use the area's best natural asset - a plentiful supply of clean water - to appeal to firms in other parts of the country or globe where water may be scarce or more polluted or expensive.
The idea would be to create so-called Wave districts, for "water attracting valued employers," where new businesses could be offered low-cost or free water in return for job-creating investment. The proposal - credited to Rich Meeusen, chief executive of Badger Meter Inc., a Brown Deer-based maker of water meters - came up at a recent conference at Marquette University on the economics of water.
It's an idea that deserves strong follow-up.
"This is our comparative advantage," Barrett said at the conference. "We have to sell on our comparative advantage. We cannot sell our winter weather." Well, we could, but how many businesses cater to penguins, polar bears and other snow lovers?
That big body of water off of Lincoln Memorial Drive is the region's greatest natural asset and offers tremendous untapped potential as an economic development tool.
Work is proceeding on developing Milwaukee as a hub for the water technology industry. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee wants to create a freshwater science school that could tie into that industry as well as develop research on what's been called the 21st century's most critical resource.
And the region can use the promise of cheap and plentiful water to lure businesses and family-supporting jobs, especially in Milwaukee, where the water utility is running under capacity.
Although the concept of using water as an economic development tool is in its early stages, Barrett said it could be in place as soon as a year from now. The Milwaukee Water Council, a trade group that aims to coax growth out of the region's cluster of water-technology companies, discussed the idea two weeks ago with the state Public Service Commission, the agency that approves water rates.
Some existing businesses may complain that newcomers will get an unfair advantage on water rates, but Meeusen has the right answer: "If we can attract additional businesses, it benefits everybody."
It's time to move on this issue. We've been told by a federal official that the Milwaukee area appears to be better organized and ahead of the curve on water issues compared with most other Great Lakes metro regions. Using water as an economic development tool can keep us there. Let's start creating those Wave districts.